European Public Spheres and the Tired “Muslim Women’s Dress” Discussion (this time, with gifs)

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For Muslim women, as well as non-Muslim women (as well as men) who specialize in Middle East and/or Islamic Studies, there is perhaps no more exhausting and played-out topic with which strangers and students are obsessed: hijab. Is it oppression? Is it liberation? Do men “make them wear that?” Do “they shower with that thing on?” The list goes on…and on… and on.

Nowhere is this hijab-fetishization (whether glorification or condemnation) more apparent than overarching discussions and debates concerning the compatibility of Islam and the “West” (whatever that nebulous geopolitical construct even means), multiculturalism, and “integration” — especially in the age of ISIS, Trump’s United States, and the post-Brexit United Kingdom. Honestly, I am so goddamn sick and tired . of discussing hijab — but I understand that it’s necessary, perhaps now more than ever.

So this morning, when a Twitter follower called my attention in to a contentious debate on Muslim dress in the European public sphere, I confess that I did not feel like having the same old conversation with Egg Avatars screaming TAQIYYA (yes, of course in all-caps). But in the end, I did decide to engage — after all, there is a reason I do this job. I replied in a brief thread of Tweets, but I wanted to recap and expand the ideas discussed in an an informal essay. And here we are.

The case in question concerned the permissibility of visibly Muslim men chaperoning a school trip in a secular society — but the issues bandied about in the discussion relate to a much broader, and more contentious debate. So, of course I jumped in and went to work — earning the ire of the Egg / . anime / Pepe the Frog / Union Jack Avatar community (who, incidentally, are remarkably uncreative in their choice of ad-hominem attacks and death threats. Do better. Actually, Be Best. Be advised: if you send me a death threat with shitty grammar, I will grade and return it, with suggestions for improvement. Because I care).

Like it or not, many Europeans and Americans are as Muslim as they are American or European. And — like it or not, Muslim dress in the so-called “West” is more often than not an indicator of the willingness — and, indeed, active desire— to “integrate” into Western society. I won’t even touch on the fact that many Muslims, born and raised in “Western” nations, don’t need to integrate into societies of which they are already a part. It’s late, and I’m too tired — in addition, this is (or should be) obvious.

European hysteria over “Muslim dress in the public sphere,” in particular, stems not from concern over separation of state and religion (the anxieties usually described as ostensible justification for championing deeply problematic policies in transparently biased generalizations, disproportionately applied to Islam) but rather, from deeply rooted bigotry that — ironically — agrees with and mimics ISIS interests. Indeed — reactionary fear-base policies actively further the so-called Islamic State’s own goals: sever Muslims’ ties to “Western” home countries, or what the group terms elimination of “the grey zone.

The crazy thing about this logic is that countries whose hardliners lambast Muslims for (allegedly) “REFUSING TO INTEGRATE AND BE PART OF OUR SOCIETIES” show, time and time again, they quite often are happy to support policies that… ACTIVELY DISCOURAGE INTEGRATION, particularly amongst the Muslim community, through measures that stem largely from bigotry and/or ignorance.

I’m going to use the example of France’s “Burkini Ban,” as there is perhaps no more emblematic example in recent history. Swimsuits as ideological uniforms — the fashion police clearly more entertaining hobbies. First (FYI), 40% of burkini consumersare not Muslim at all (mostly conservative Jewish women as well as others in favor of modest dress, and women with skin conditions).

Aheda Zanetti, a Lebanese-Australian women, invented the so-called “burkini” in the wake of racial-religious tensions after a beach riot in Bankstown, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. Post-9/11 anxieties and social tensions in the small suburb reached a fevered pitch in 2005, a year which saw mobs of white men attacking Muslim men (and “Middle Eastern-appearing” men) on Cronella Beach.

In an effort to ease intra-group tensions, civic organizations sought to develop programs to defuse racial and religious tensions in Australia, and in 2007, nonprofit Surf Life Saving Australia devised a campaign to recruit Muslim women for employment as lifeguards. Women approached were enthusiastic about the idea, but many did not feel comfortable with standard, revealing swimsuit designs on offer at the time.

Surf Live Saving Australia turned to Zanetti for help, who came up with the colorful and eye-catching red and yellow lifeguard uniform that took off like wildfire among Australian Muslim women — especially those eager to ease communal tensions and provide a public service in their HOME COUNTRYThus, the controversial swimsuit was born: for the express purpose of integration.

In the interest of time, I’m just going to summarize a few key points related to France’s dress codes for Muslim women , and the broader issue of visibly Islamic signifiers in European public spheres. Take Algeria as a case-in-point (and many other countries falling under the French imperial project’s strategic umbrella of conquest) — colonialism was built on the logic of a “civilizing mission”: to transform indigenous societies in the enlightened image of their European overlord-savors. As with all cultural conquests, female bodies constituted a primary battleground. The “woman question” constituted a cornerstone of occupation’s justification, which included “women’s liberation” through propaganda campaigns to persuade women to remove the veil, and barring that, gave colonists and officials tacit (as well as overt) permission forcibly stripping off women’s clothes in the name of Enlightenment “freedom.”

In addition to average settlers’ (empowered on an individual level to “free-by-force”) harassment of local Algerian — tearing off veils in the public streets — but the French colonial administration organized and institutionalized state-sanctioned rituals of sartorial violations as civic performance: French colonists gathered Algerian women for a ceremony in which veiled bodies were paraded on stage, stripped of scarves, and proudly announced as “liberated.”

Sounds…a wee bit hypocritical, no? Ergo, the general Muslim / North African response to France’s Burkini Ban? “That’s hypocritical” is a bit too diplomatic.

More like:

So, the rationale of “free Muslim women from Islam’s oppression by banning Muslim dress so they are comfortable in “our” public spaces) rings very hollow indeed in the case of places like France. It’s helpful to remember that the French occupation of Algeria began in 1840 — not until 1962 did Algerians gain independence through a protracted, violent, and traumatic revolution.

This period, moreover, is not a distant memory for North Africans, despite the willful amnesia of their fellow French citizens. For many older Algerians, the aforementioned acts of aggression against Muslim women are viscerally remembered— indeed, often on the embodied level of muscle memory, experiences which remain painful even today, and echo in the Burkini Ban’s enforcement.

Make no mistake; in the grand scheme of divisive social issues like the Burkini Ban and questions of “Muslim integration,” the colonial legacy lives on, and plays a key role. The concept of “laicïté” is widely misunderstood as American-style “separation of church and state,” but a better phasing would be: intrusive secularism. Laïcité arose, initially, as a mechanism through which to restrain the Catholic church’s influence over an overwhelmingly homogenous society.

But then colonialism happened, and in turn, decolonization. Much like Britain, France saw demographic shifts due to waves of immigration, predominantly from Muslim North Africa. Funny thing is: OH SHIT —colonialism has consequences. Devastate a society while imposing your language, culture, and institutions on the indigenous population yet deny them equal legal status, and you leave deep and long-lasting scars on individuals, institutions, economies, and societies. Better yet, after decolonization proper, be sure to encourage the postcolony’s economic dependence on the metropole, and guess what?

THEY COME TO YOU. Yes: they are now here because you were there.

In such a situation — immigration resulting from the legacy of a colonialism that lingers on in impact, if not French public consciousness (ignorance, after all, can be bliss) — well, laïcité gets just a touch more complicated, you see. A dark irony lurks in the metropole’s “integration” debates. Certainly, French settlers were not eager to learn Arabic, convert to Islam, and don the haïk when conquering Algeria — much less exhibit any respect for local norms and values.

On that note, France’s Burkini Ban included citations issued to non-compliant women that explicitly insult offenders’ mortality and call into question national loyalties. Citations accused wearers of “violating the good morals of the republic.”

PAUSE and meditate, momentarily, on the charge: “violating good morals of the republic.” In other, more vulgar words (but after all, obscenity is — at times — the only apt language with which to describe obscenity) — “show me your tits, or your flagrant display of modest morality puts you out of step with the post-Enlightenment, modern Western world!” GET NAKED OR GTFO, BABY! (is this France or Girls Gone Wild?)! I mean… FEMEN never got a citation for their Epic Titty Jihad™ (or whatever the fresh fucking garbage hell it was called). Under my sardonic tone here lies a very serious point. This state to the ideological policing of female dress approach mirrors the antithesis of intrusive French secularism. Yes, I mean…IRAN.

Iran and France “hijab” policies…BOTH:

— claim interpretative authority over personal values

— legislate “morality”

— deny individual autonomy (agency)

— bar equal access to civic participation

— intentionally indoctrinate through dress codes

Another revealing component of the bigotry / ignorance behind state-sanctioned dress codes for women (France here, not Iran): Burkini Bans were explicitly justified in the name of “fighting extremism” after ISIS’ 2016 attacks in Nice. This isn’t just a specious accusation; it’s actually…stupid. Super stupid. Ridiculously stupid. And also — the justification is transparent.

First, France conflates all Muslim women in visibly Muslim attire with ISIS (inaccurate to the point of insanity, and also — an express goal of the so-called Islamic State). Secondly, as human rights organizations pointed out, such measures constitute an act of collective punishment, and as such — contravene international law.France denied this in the name of national security and “laïcité” as a cornerstone of French society.

Meanwhile, Geneva Conventions be like:

In addition, France’s Burkini Ban demonstrates just how uninformed the public is about not just French history — whether laïcité’s developmental context or the colonization of Algeria, but also the so-called Islamic State, other militant groups, and more broadly — Islam. The same ignorance, coupled with cynical measures enacted in the name of political expediency (and/or motivated by bigotry) by government officials and public figures, factors in to the popularity of France’s Burkini Ban.

Because, you see…here is how ISIS views the burkini:

Perhaps another way to put might be:

Actually, let me clarify. ISIS and related groups do, after all, have nuanced views and not all NSAGs are created equally. For example, Al Qaeda is more likely to weigh in with:

Or, to be blunt about the so-called Islamic State’s view on the SCANDALOUSLY clingy material of this salacious swimsuit that only a deficient and deviant “Muslim” woman would wear, the response is basically as follows (I’m paraphrasing — but just slightly):

More generally, that nebulous category called “Islamist extremists” respond to the image of burkini-clad women on the beach with horror and scorn, or to borrow a favorite phrase (again, mea culpa — paraphrased, as Arabic is quite tricky to translate with any degree of accuracy) from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (I think this comes from his khutba in Mosul, but I could be wrong. I promise to hunt down a citation).

France’s “anti-extremist” justification for the Burkini Ban is, frankly — not just nonsensical but ludicrously so. ISIS (et al) view such attire as far below the the standards required by their own state-imposed, oppressive female dress codes designed to ideologically indoctrinate via clothing.

So — irony of the muthafuckin’ millennium — the fashion police of both France and ISIS (oh, and half the lunatics on the swampland Internet of Twitter, judging from my mentions at the moment) regard women who wear the wrong thing at Swimsuit Season as heretics, whether secular or religious.

In short, but with coercive implications and legal consequences, Lucille Bluth has taken over the Ministry of Beach Attire.


  1. Thanks for articulating on such a important issue. I also get very tired of trying to explain this issue to a bunch of people but it’s so important for these troubled times. Many Muslim women and knowledgeable scholars have articulated on this subject eloquently before but it tends to fall towards deaf ears. The times that it is given more serious or wide attention, people ignore them or even attack them. Your post describing the hostile reaction by trolls towards your discussion on the subject is a perfect example of what I mean. I don’t know about you but I occasionally feel disheartened by the thought of all this willful ignorance and begin to wonder that if many people won’t listen to actual experts on the matter then what else can possibly get them to listen? Oh yeah… the mainstreaming of Islamophobia and plain bigotry doesn’t make things better either. What ways have you found most effective in engaging in a positive discussion, how do you deal with those that refuse such a discussion, and what brightens up your day if you ever feel overwhelmed or frustrated from said issues.

    Liked by 1 person

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