The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. Sarah Sayeed is a Program Associate at the Interfaith Center of New York and a board member of Women In Islam, Inc.By Sarah SayeedAs an American Muslim woman who adheres to religious guidelines on modest dress, I find it ironic that such remarkably different nations as Sudan and France seem similarly preoccupied with legislating Muslim women’s dress. The Sudanese government recently arrested and whipped women, including Christian women, for wearing trousers. The French banned a woman wearing a head-to-toe Muslim bathing suit (a “burkini”) from entering a town pool.
(Photo: Australian lifeguard Mecca Laalaa in her burkini, 13 Jan 2007/Tim Wimborne)
Even if we were to give credence to an argument that pants are immodest for women, there is no injunction in the Quran or any example from Prophet Muhammad which demands corporeal punishment for “inappropriate” dress. Such a harsh practice completely contradicts the justice and compassion that Islam mandates.Likewise, the French ban on burkinis is outrageous. Wearing the burkini has given me the freedom to enjoy water sports with my son; it has not limited me, but rather enhanced the quality of my life. But now, I worry that other public pools will follow suit. In recent years, France banned religious symbols in public schools, including the headscarf, and denied citizenship to a Muslim woman who wears a face veil. Will this disturbing trend spread across other democratic nations?France and Sudan are miles apart geographically, politically, and culturally. Yet both countries have imposed on the personal freedom of Muslim women to dress as they choose, and ultimately, to participate in the public sphere. Sudan’s choice to impose corporeal punishment is far more egregious, relative to banning a woman from entering a pool. For the average person, Sudan’s actions seem barbaric, but in a way, unsurprising because they conform to a prevailing stereotype about Islamic law as harsh and oppressive to women.But because French laws are enacted in a context which purports more openness, plurality and freedom, they could be more harmful to the cause of global freedom and democracy. France perceives itself as a free country that allows its citizens to practice the religion of their choice. France, like other Western European countries or the United States, would want Muslim nations to “look up to it,” to learn from its example how to separate religion and state. However, the French ban on head covers, face covers, and now on pool attire suggests that religious freedom is bounded, even within a democratic context.It is true that the ban on headscarves emerged out of a debate among French Muslims. Specifically, one group of Muslims felt that their freedom of choice and conscience were imposed upon when other Muslims insulted and physically harassed girls who were not wearing a scarf. The former turned to the government for assistance. Out of its sense of responsibility to maintain public order, the government banned all religious symbols in public schools. But preserving the freedom of conscience of one party need not come at the expense of freedom of religious practice of another. There are other methods of resolving such conflicts, including prosecuting harassment and attacks as hate crimes, imposing strict penalties on perpetrators, and even community mediation.
(Photo: Palestinian girls play beach volleyball at Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, 20 \june 2009/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
French authorities also voiced a concern that loose fitting swim gear that “can be worn in public may carry molecules and viruses that can be transmitted to other bathers.” Even though most Muslim women are unlikely to wear the burkini anywhere else, surely a shower before entering the water and the chlorine of a public pool can be counted upon to take care of these dangerous “molecules and viruses!” A deeper mistrust of Muslims emerges in Mayor Kelyor’s statement that to permit the burkini is to “go back in civilization.” Muslim women’s practice of modesty poses a threat to French notions of progress just as Sudanese Muslim women’s choice to wear pants was also deemed threatening.Ultimately, authorities in Sudan and France conveyed a parallel message. To democracy’s nay-sayers in the Muslim world, France communicated that those who practice Islam will be marginalized. To Islam’s nay-sayers Sudan confirmed the interpretation that Islamic law is an oppressive and restrictive. Both have infringed upon the rights of minority groups within their respective contexts.Governments and political movements worldwide, from Turkey to Afghanistan, from France to the U.K, from Sudan to Saudi Arabia, all are inappropriately focused on controlling Muslim women’s dress. It is surprising that even within nations that uphold individual freedom, democracy and the separation of religion and state, governments seem to be anxious about Muslim women’s attire. Would governments ever legislate that men who wear beards may not become citizens and those who wear fitted pants should be whipped? I say to these governments: get out of our hair, and stay away from our pants! Instead, what government must do is to protect the freedom of Muslim women to choose our dress. Protecting choice guarantees human dignity and maintains fairness. Ultimately, the preservation of democracy as well as the practice of Islam depends on it.———————The burkini (aka “burqini”), which first appeared in Australia, has also been banned in at least one Dutch swimming pool.Following is a Reuters video report on the recent “burkini ban” in France –