The argument that France is waging war on Islamic dress codes to prevent the enslavement of women is just one more example of disgusting hypocrisy in the service of imperialist interests. Instead of representing liberation of women from all the ways they are already enslaved, it amounts to screaming about the domination of Muslim women by Muslim men just so that these women can be forced to accept forms of oppression that patriarchal, imperialist French society considers proper.
Women everywhere were angered by a viral video showing four armed policemen surrounding a woman sitting on a beach in Nice, making her remove her long-sleeved outer shirt and scarf. This scene, calling to mind other violations and humiliations women endure daily, was made no less ugly by the fact that the French state did this in the name of fighting the "enslavement of women", as Prime Minister Manuel Valls falsely claimed.
The mayors of several dozen seaside cities cited "public safety" as the reason for banning the "burkini" in the wake of the 14 July terrorist attack in Nice, when a man driving a refrigerator truck deliberately ploughed through a holiday crowd, killing 86 people. The burkini is a swimsuit covering all of a woman's body, except feet, hands and face, marketed as a way to allow observant Muslim women to swim. The lie was that every Muslim woman who covers up in one way or another represents Islamism, whose project is not just the observance or even promotion of religion but religious rule. In reality, this banning had little to do with France's alleged secularism or religion as such.
The new regulations – outlawing not only suspected religious garb on the beach but even "bathing while clothed" – are applied only to women, never to men, and never to anyone wearing symbols of other religions. When police accosted a young woman wearing jeans and a headscarf in Cannes, she asked them whether they were inspecting other beach-goers for religious symbols such as a cross or Jewish head covering. The woman was ordered to leave the beach immediately.
According to French media, in several incidents individuals and, more recently, crowds have joined in with the police, yelling, "This is a Christian country", "Go home" and other racist and anti-migrant vitriol against these young women. This ugly situation cannot be considered a "debate", as the prime minister called it in supporting mayors who are defying a decision by the highest court in such matters. (The court ruling, which established a precedent, was that no valid argument had been made as to why covering anyone's head and body on the beach or in the sea threatens "public security and the protection of order, health and public morals", as had been claimed.) In fact, the French government at all levels is stirring up an anti-Muslim, hysterical, racist lynch mob atmosphere, with deeply anti-women undertones.
Leaders of France's main political parties have made it clear that whether and/or how to ban public signs of Islamic belief is becoming a main focus of France's contentious politics. The ex- and would-be future president Nicolas Sarkozy, seeking to rally both the base of the populist National Front and the old-line and better-off traditional Catholic right, calls the burkini a threat to the country's "Christian" (or sometimes "Judeo-Christian") "identity". The Socialist Party prime minister, for his part, calls it a threat to "secularism". He disagreed with Sarkozy's call to change the constitution to allow new legislation to ban manifestations of Islamic belief from public life. But brushing aside both the law and warnings from other ministers that throwing oil on the fire could spread destruction in unpredictable directions, including his own party, he echoed leaders of the unabashedly fascistic right by calling Islamic dress a "provocation" – an act of defiance by the children and grandchildren of immigrants from French colonies and neo-colonies ungrateful for French "civilization".
The many people who voted for the Socialist Party simply to stop the National Front and Sarkozy must have been disoriented to find the Socialist prime minister fighting to put himself at the head of the charge against Muslims. Yet his justification, that the burkini "enslaves women", does seem to have confused the issue for some people, because there is some truth to this charge.
It is abhorrent for the reactionary French imperialist state – or, really, any state – to dictate what to wear to anyone, especially women whose clothing choices have been conditioned by male supremacy for thousands of years. But it is not true that the burkini, or the burka (full body and facial covering) or even the hijab (headscarf) are simply fashion choices with no political or ideological content. The religious stricture to hide the female body from the male gaze – or, more accurately, the eyes of men other than the man they belong to, and the regarding of women's sexuality as a threat to the social order unless women are under a specific male's authority – is an explicit expression of patriarchy, the rule of the father over women and children.
The patriarchal family arose thousands of years ago, along with other ways in which differences between human beings were turned into oppressive relations and the emergence of the state to enforce those relations. Forms of patriarchal relations, patriarchal thinking and male supremacy in general have been thoroughly absorbed and remain entrenched in the most "modern" imperialist societies.
It is true that many young women from Muslim backgrounds in imperialist countries decide to cover themselves in one way or another as a gesture of defiance, feeling that they are defending an identity both imposed upon them and stigmatized by a thoroughly oppressive society. But the hijab and all the rest signal submission to male authority no matter what their intentions. Otherwise, if these garments did not indicate whether the wearer belongs to the dominant or dominated sex, why would only women wear them?
This logic applies to all the major religions, all of them irredeemably patriarchal. But this is not admitted in France for political reasons. For instance, Judaism is also fiercely patriarchal. Women who follow its strictures strictly are also required to cover themselves, although not always in obvious ways (wearing a wig instead of a hijab, although many observant Jewish women do wear a headscarf and the French police don't bother them). Orthodox Jewish clothing is a powerful marker of traditional patriarchal gender roles, but that, fortunately, is no longer seen as a police issue in France these days. So why is Muslim garb today?
One of the most essential elements in understanding this situation is that although the forms of women's oppression can be very different in different societies, the oppression of women is a basic and indelible feature of the entire global imperialist system. Religion sometimes plays a different role in the daily lives of people in the handful of countries that have accumulated wealth at the expense of the vast majority of the world's human beings, compared to the countries these imperialists dominate. But patriarchy is a pillar of all the major religions and the social relations, morals, values and traditions even in countries where there has been a separation of church and state, of which France considers itself the most advanced example
Defending his support for the burkini ban, Prime Minister Valls called equality between men and women the hallmark of the French republic since the 1789 revolution. This is simply not true. Until 1965, French men were the legal guardians of their wives, who could not work or open a bank account without their husband's permission. Men could legally rape their wives until 1990. Over the following decade, women finally achieved legal equality. But in reality, they remain the oppressed sex in every way.
For instance, take the different roles men and women play in rearing children, which generally sets the terms for how their lives unfold. Whether they stay at home or hire other women to help them or just try to juggle as best they can, no one can deny that overwhelmingly, it is women who have responsibility for raising children. One factor is that many French public primary schools close for part or all of Wednesday, an arrangement originally meant to allow the Church to work its ways on children that day. Also, the school year is full of holidays, mainly Catholic in origin. Solutions are available, for the more moneyed and lucky, but all this tends to confine women to traditionally women's jobs, where they can take off Wednesdays, etc., and lower pay can be justified. This material reality is reinforced by social pressure and the enduring grip of patriarchal ideas, specifically the legacy of Catholic "family values" (no less patriarchal than Islam and Judaism) and the persistent social, ideological and political influence of the Catholic Church today, both in its direct authority and broader, generally unchallenged influence.
In relation to women's ability to decide whether and when to have children, here the reach of the Church's influence is more direct. Informed observers say that the forbidding of an abortion after 12 weeks of pregnancy is the result of an agreement between the French state and the Church. It's hard to find another explanation – there is no medical explanation or even publicly expressed demand for this limit. When combined with the difficulty in getting a timely medical appointment, the result is that in a country where abortion is free, often women have to travel to expensive private clinics in other countries. A similar situation prevails in terms of inheritance for women, where the law provides for equality but real social circumstances and tradition can combine to make this question hell for women.
These are examples of oppressive relations thoroughly embedded in the economic and social organization of this society. They cannot be ended without a revolution to radically and thoroughly transform society as a whole. These changes are not possible under capitalism, where the wealth created by society as a whole (and now on a world level) is the private property of a handful of exploiters locked in life-or-death competition with one another. Further, only a revolution and an outlook able and determined to emancipate all of humanity could fully unleash, lead and back up women and men to challenge and overcome the enslaving ideas and practices that arise out of and re-enforce these oppressive relations.
If there is any country in the world where women are judged on their ability to please men, that country is France. Women may not like it and some try to opt out in different ways, but that is a bedrock feature no woman can fully escape from, and one that the political and intellectual establishment is almost unanimous in supporting. This is not just a matter of women's bodies being used to sell everything imaginable and themselves; it means being visually and often physically available to men.
The Socialist party leader and former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn would very likely be president of France today if he had not been arrested for rape in New York. Yet his life-long behaviour – such as orgies with prostitutes attended by other prominent people and violent and forced sex – was widely accepted as an expression of modern sexual "freedom". That is – for men.
While no one can predict what people will wear at the beach – if anything – after human bodies and minds are freed from the grips of oppression and exploitation, it is certain that in today's societies, both the covering up and exposing of women's bodies, bikinis, burkinis and whatever else, are given content by the fact that women are the oppressed sex.
In the absence of a revolution, no personal choices can change that. Even very positive opposition to the French beach Gestapo, such as the protest in front of the French embassy in London where women and men piled up sand and frolicked in all sorts of dress and undress, would be better able to get to the heart of the matter with a clearer understanding of the relationship between individual choices and the organization of society and its prevailing institutions.
This does not mean, however, that individual choices are not very important, for individuals and society. Before, during and after a revolution, there is a vital role for a revolutionary movement of people who advocate and model the values and behaviour that only the overthrow of the old state and the thorough transformation of society and eventually the world can allow to fully flourish.
The argument that the French state is waging war on Islamic dress codes to prevent the enslavement of women is just one more example of disgusting hypocrisy in the service of imperialist interests. Instead of representing something that could liberate women in France from all the ways they are already enslaved, it amounts to screaming about the domination of Muslim women by Muslim men just so that these women can be forced to accept forms of oppression that patriarchal, imperialist French society considers proper. Any way you look at it, in this context, the burkini ban is a flagrantly patriarchal claim on the bodies of all women.
This is one more way imperialism gives rise to and feeds Islamic fundamentalism, whose crimes the imperialists use to justify their own crimes on a far broader scale. It is inseparable from the excuse of "fighting Islamism" used to justify a growing French military presence in its former colonies in West Africa, where Islamism could not have arisen as it has without the blight on people's lives produced by neocolonialism and all the evils associated with it. Not to mention France's appetite for military involvement in North Africa and Syria.
Rather than saving France from jihadi Islamic fundamentalists, the French state and its contending representatives are handing them a great gift – the potential polarization the jihadis have dreamed of and worked for, the political goal behind their utterly despicable terrorist attacks on civilians, especially in France. A polarization in which many people at the bottom of this society or marginalized in other ways look to Islamic fundamentalism as their own salvation from a morally bankrupt and extremely hostile society which, despite its pretensions at ensuring the rights of individuals, crushes so many people at home – and even denies them a home – and wages open terrorism in its wars to dominate peoples abroad.
* Juan Sui is a contributor to A World to Win News Service, which previously carried this article.
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