The Burkini as the Metaphor for a Conflict
Alessandra Vitullo 12 June 2017

It was last summer when the mayors of a number of French seaside resorts forbade Muslim women from wearing burkinis on the beach. Manuel Valls, French prime minister at the time, immediately sided with the ban just as France was going through one of the most tragic periods in its recent history. Following the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre on January 7th, the Bataclan massacre on November 13th of the same year and, ultimately, that of Nice about a month prior to the burkini controversy had begun, Islam had certainly become one of the most sensitive issues of the 2017 French presidential election campaigns. In fact, Marine Le Pen’s Front National party had seized the opportunity to accentuate its populist and xenophobic tone, thereby witnessing a steady growth in popularity.

As a bathing suit that covers the whole body, with the exception of the face, hands and feet, the burkini was conceived for personal use by the Muslim Australian-Lebanese designer Aheda Zanetti, as it allowed her to swim comfortably and to lie in the sun. After being patented, the burkini became a clothing item manufactured by all the most important fashion houses.

The Burkini as a Metaphor (Castelvecchi editore, 96 pages, 12.50 euro) is Stefano Allievi’s most recent publication that retraces the significance of the debate, which has sparked all over Europe, concerning the ban on burkinis and how it has effectively and metaphorically portrayed the public, communicative, hermeneutic tension surrounding Islam’s presence in Europe.

As a professor of sociology at Padova University, Stefano Allievi is an expert on the Islamic presence in Europe and member of the National Study Commission for the phenomena of radicalisation and jihadist extremism in Italy. In this most recent book, he breaks down all the arguments and presents the main players involved in the controversy surrounding the burkini, with all their different points of view. Allievi highlights the fact that discussing the burkini effectively means debating far broader issues such as the relationship between religion and politics, Islam’s visibility in the European public sphere as well as discourses of gender relations and women’s bodies.

Beginning with the feminist argument, Allievi emphasises how Muslim women are the main absentee in the burkini debate. Generally speaking, women’s battle for emancipation from the veil derives from the notion “of a Muslim woman incapable of emancipation and therefore in need of help from others”. In fact, one does not question whether it is the Muslim women themselves who freely choose to wear the veil. From this perspective the burkini, much like the veil, is not considered as a required right but an obligation imposed by Muslim men onto Muslim women. Reading Allievi’s work, it becomes clear how such arguments are also part of an anti-Islamic and Islamophobic rhetoric where the problem lies in Islam itself, doctrinally opposed to women’s autonomy. Either way, we end up with the woman being considered a passive subject, a victim dominated by patriarchal society.

In a greatly secularised country such as France, the theme regarding the place of religion in the public sphere was certainly one of the crucial points during the burkini controversy, as it had been in the previous scenario regarding veils in schools. On this topic, Allievi speaks of identity secularism, a laicity that becomes a fundamental value of the French Republic and is paradoxically morphed into a “state clericalism”. The author clearly explains, albeit in parenthesis, the logic which underlies the policies and communications relevant to the intersection between state and religion: “the French, in the public debate of this issue, are alone in considering secularisation as an irreversible and unidirectional process, thus subject to a single legitimate interpretation”. The French custom of defending the public sphere’s neutrality in regards to the intrusion of religious symbolism and interpretations has de facto resulted in the obligation to conform to a “regulated and compulsory state secularisation”, whereas it is increasingly evident that the process of secularization itself is “a historical contingent fact, subject to shifting social equilibriums and probably reversible”.

On the other hand, the debate around the burkini in Islamic or Islamist circles has provided an opportunity to immerse oneself into a socio-cultural workshop and observe the Islamic tradition being renewed. The burkini is a new concept: “Not being part of any Islamic tradition, it is simply part of the halalisation process that has been characterising Islamic communities in recent years”. This process results in the creation of new identity markets comparable, according to Allievi, to the same dynamics surrounding the emergence of vegetarian and vegan products.

Food and practices, whether kosher or halal, give rise to new regulatory spaces which indicate how the holy scriptures and religious customs have always existed within a dialectical, hermeneutical framework, adaptable to socio-cultural changes within which these texts are “extremely important as a means of legitimisation that, in a Weberian fashion, situate the actions of individuals”.

In conclusion, the author poses the question at the basis of the burkini debate and, in general, the relations that which regulate the presence of Islam in Europe. Should everything really be the same for everyone in a pluralist and inclusive society? It is right that cultural differences be knowingly and freely accepted in a democratic society and that they be treated with different standards according to whether they do or do not violate the corporal integrity of the individual. It is for these reasons that “although the veil that covers all but the face is considered acceptable, castration of the female genitalia is not”. What is becoming increasingly less accepted, as emphasised by the author, are normative bans on outfits that in no way threaten security (there is no way one could hide a bomb or weapon in a burkini) nor public morality. “In this sense, the photograph taken on a beach in Nice of the policemen forcing a woman to remove her costume (unfortunately surrounded by those who applauded them or harshly interjected by saying “Go back home” to a person who is just as likely to be a local, whilst her daughter cries) is unacceptable”.

A few weeks after the “burkini ban”, the 26th of August to be precise, it was the French State Council itself that spoke out against the ban, giving a clear motive that “this decree has led to a serious and manifestly illegal threat to the fundamental freedoms such as that of being able to come and go as one pleases as well as those of conscience and personal freedoms.”

The book entitled The Burkini as a Metaphor is published in Italian by Castelvecchi, 96 pages, 12.50 euro.



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