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Burkini Bans, Muslim 'Hygiene,' and the History of the Holocaust

Avoiding the Slippery Slope

Burkini Bans, Muslim 'Hygiene,' and the History of the Holocaust

by Anya Cordell

There are a lot of issues associated with swimsuits; ask any woman. But the newest is hysteria over what some Muslim women are wearing; too much fabric, beyond that required to barely cover genitals, buttocks, and bits of breasts. Teeny bikinis on women, (and speedos for men), are fine. On some beaches in the world, nudity is fine. Wetsuits are fine. Concealing hats, dark glasses, caftans, and sarongs are fine. It’s fine for those who have had skin cancer, or who just don’t want to burn, or for non-Muslims to cover themselves, in any fashion, for any reason.

Muslim women wearing burkinis at a beach in Amasra, Turkey. – Photo: Flickr, Charles, Roffey, Cc. 2.0

Muslim women wearing burkinis at a beach in Amasra, Turkey. – Photo: Flickr, Charles, Roffey, Cc. 2.0

On multiple beaches in France, and in other swimming venues elsewhere, however, ‘burkinis’ or modest swimwear some Muslim women choose to wear, are now forbidden. By law.

The rationale that has been given is partially … Wait for it: “Hygiene.”

But it’s clear the ban has nothing, whatsoever, to do with any aspect of “hygiene”. It’s almost absurd to state the obvious: No one is going to police the cleanliness of anyone’s bikini or speedo (Ick!). The ruling is, rather, a nod to those who are anxious or traumatized, or who want to punish and ban all Muslims from sight, because somehow this knee-jerk reaction feels satisfying at this time.

“Hygiene,” with a ‘Wink,’ to Designate a Tainted “Other”

These policies cast a vague aspersion of an undefined, but unmistakable, whiff of defilement; that the clothes of Muslims are contaminated, and will contaminate those who merely look at them, let alone if the ‘contamination’ is dispersed into water. Obviously, the fabric of a Muslim woman’s bathing costume is not scientifically unhygienic. For a sub-class of people, however, it’s not necessary to give valid reasons. The excuse is so transparently illogical that everyone knows the real message. Say “hygiene,” with a ‘wink,’ as the mayor of Cannes and others have, and everyone can translate what is really being conveyed. The aspersion being thrown into an already charged Islamophobic climate is that Muslims, themselves, are tainted.

This is classic casting of the “Other” as unclean, unsavory, filthy, even contaminated; which has, historically, made it possible, even easy, to view separation from, and, eventually, eradication of, such designated groups as a “cleansing.” The term “ethnic cleansing” – for genocide – is rooted in the construct of some group being inherently, irredeemably unclean and, preferably, eliminated altogether.

There are precedents, in our country, for the notion that some people must be prevented from ‘tainting’ swimming or drinking water. Of course, drinking fountains and swimming pools were not ‘contaminated,’ as many had widely believed they would be, once the offending groups, i.e., blacks, were allowed to swim and drink, as other humans freely could. We’ve just watched a black Olympian medal in swimming, a rarity because so few blacks historically accessed swimming pools. And we’ve watched numerous Muslim women athletes compete and succeed in their preferred garb ... no big deal.

But France has invoked its historic notions of secularism, related to “equality and fraternity,” in this matter. I’m not French and won’t attempt to parse their law and culture, but it’s evident that exclusion of anyone not uniformly secular (whether clothed or barely clothed) creates a less tolerant, less equal, and less fraternal culture, contributing to misinformation about, and marginalization of whomever is deemed “Other.”

France has also banned hijabs from public schools and decreed the skirts of Muslim public school girls must be suitably short! If the trend continues, French beaches might require nudity, or – as someone cleverly commented – people could be arrested “for indecent non-exposure.” Bans for students wearing religious garb are truly insidious, forcing those who cannot afford private school tuition to forego public education, or relinquish their belief system, effectively removing a percentage of Muslims from public space. Is it surprising that these policies foster bitterness and resentment throughout large communities?

Sikhs are often confused with Muslims and, as a result, have suffered violence and oppression from Islamophobes. Unlike Islam, Sikh turbans are a part of their religious tradition. – Photo: Flickr, S. Kiranjot Singh Malhotra, Cc. 2.0

Sikhs are often confused with Muslims and, as a result, have suffered violence and oppression from Islamophobes. Unlike Islam, Sikh turbans are a part of their religious tradition. – Photo: Flickr, S. Kiranjot Singh Malhotra, Cc. 2.0

For context, imagine forcing nuns and priests to wear clothes they deem immodest. Some Sikh males would sacrifice their life over cutting their hair or removing their turbans. Religious precepts that one should grow hair or beards are not limited to Sikhs and Muslims. It also practiced by observant Jews. There are horrible photos of Nazis, viciously chopping the beards of Jewish victims.

The burkini ban is not trivial. It’s a slippery slope that bars people, who have harmed no one, from being welcome, or legally allowed, in civic spaces. No one believes that cleanliness is the reason, except those who want to believe that Muslims are inherently dirty, and that ‘dirty’ is code ... for “undesirable.” Does the phrase “Dirty Jew” resonate? It was purposefully crafted to shape opinion, leading to the annihilation of a people, who were also, initially, banned from public spaces.

Who Belongs at the Beach?

But many French are angry, shell-shocked and traumatically stressed, as are people in other locales who have been victimized by terror. They want safety and justice. They want their loved ones and their towns as they were.

If they can’t have that – which they can’t – they want to go back to the beach ... and find some respite. They want to listen to the waves, or feel the sun, or gaze upon the exposed flesh of the bodies they like to look at, and ignore or belittle the exposed flesh of the bodies they feel superior to.

They don’t want to see Muslims there, at least not Muslims who can be identified as such. (Though it is convenient that hijabs and burkinis make it easy to know whom to deplore and exclude.) It is perhaps worse when Muslims, who are not in identifiable garb, wander among the ‘clean’ folk, surreptitiously ‘tainting’ the water and the scene.

How about Yellow Crescents?

The yellow ‘badge’ required of Jews by Nazis in France. – Photo: Wikipedia, Rama

The yellow ‘badge’ required of Jews by Nazis in France. – Photo: Wikipedia, Rama

For Muslims who are not instantly identifiable, would it, perhaps, be a good idea to ‘tag’ them? A yellow crescent might do the trick. Maybe tattooed, along with an identification number, or, implanted, as a chip?

Those who would exclude Muslims from the beach forget that vast numbers of Muslims in France, and elsewhere, have been primary victims of terrorism. They forget that Muslims are a part of the community, presumably paying taxes that maintain it. They forget that Muslims, too, lost their loved ones to terror, and also seek some small respite at the beach. But that is not to be. Instead, some of these people are to be victimized again, made to feel unwelcome, inferior, unclean, and excluded by their own local governments, as well as by those people who agree with the policy, or who ‘go along,’ or who don’t object, or who simply ‘mind their own business.’

The History of ‘Going Along’

This history of ‘going along’ is well-known and very dangerous.

I live in a neighborhood to which Orthodox Jews have been progressively migrating, some might say “encroaching,” as the community has shifted from predominantly Catholic, to mixed and secular, and now, increasingly, to an observantly Jewish population. As a secular Jew, I still feel somewhat marginal, although the neighborhood now hosts ‘my people’ and many Jews who likely carry our people’s Holocaust memories or associations, whether we are secular or observant.

The Orthodox women wear long skirts, long sleeves, and cover their natural hair with wigs, in their own practice of modesty. Do their husbands, or the fact that they are born into patriarchal Orthodox families, dictate these choices? Certainly, there are women in all cultures, influenced or directed to wear something modest, or immodest, by someone with power over them. And we are all under the sway of the fashion industry, of media, and those who gain from manipulating our choices and purchases.

Many Orthodox men in my community wear yarmulkes on their heads and fringes beneath their shirts. Some grow long locks of hair at their ears. Some dress in the anachronistic long black coats and fur hats of their Eastern European ancestors, even in summer. To me, the men in their black hats and garb look hot, stand-offish, insular, and, I admit, rather off-putting.

I also have to admit that, in general, these men look free. Because they are. They are free to dress as they choose, at least according to the law and to the norms of our culture. They certainly don’t ask my approval. If I have any feelings about it, I am free to not live in this neighborhood, or free to deal with my issues in the privacy of my own head. An argument made by those who deplore Muslim garb is that Muslims so dressed represent some sort of encroaching indoctrination of everyone. No one dressed modestly, whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Mormon, or any other religion, has ever tried to tell me how to dress, and I’m fairly certain that this is widely true elsewhere and in France.

My town council has not decreed the proper length of Jewish women's skirts or men's hair. If there were to be civic debate about this, I am certain the discussion would be fraught with raised voices and emotions, that would, very quickly, and rightfully, veer into evoking the Holocaust. 

Standing up

So, why, I wonder, is it that Jews, everywhere, France included, aren’t front and center, fighting for a principle that is equally critical to our own history and our own rights? Will the next Anne Frank be a girl in a hijab, hiding from the locals, writing of her longing to walk safely in the world, as a commenter to a piece I wrote predicted?

Why aren’t huge coalitions of all people who choose to dress in accordance with their cultures, their religions, even their own fashion sense, standing against policies and laws, which are a slippery slope to oppression, discrimination, and even destruction of entire groups of people?

The big conversations being played out in our current media characterizing all, or almost all, Muslims, are based in absurd ignorance, including shrill claims made by non-Muslims, spouting forth about matters of which they have no understanding. But just because something is repeated, or shouted, does not make it true, no matter how convincing it may seem.

Good Information

Where can we get good information? How about authentic sources? If you are not Muslim, how many Muslim women who wear headscarfs have you met, befriended, and asked to share their personal reasons and choices for what they wear?

How many Muslims, or Jewish men in yarmulkes, or people who wear crucifixes, or Sikh men who wear turbans as an integral precept of their religion (which is utterly distinct from Islam), do you know, before making general judgments about them? How many people – who were born into whatever families, cultures, ethnicities, and religions in which they landed, and who are, like you, trying to make their way in this world, to be productive and happy – do you make snap judgments about, based on some superficial feature or stereotype?

Anti-racism poster – Photo: Flickr, McBeth, Cc. 2.0

Anti-racism poster – Photo: Flickr, McBeth, Cc. 2.0

Where have you derived your ideas about the autonomy and stature of masses of Muslim women? After Donald Trump made absurd, ignorant comments about Ghazala Khan, a gold-star mother, too grief-stricken over losing her son to speak in front of millions of people, Muslim women worldwide, many who choose to cover their heads, created the #CanYouHearUsNow campaign, highlighting some of their awesome accomplishments.

Women who choose to wear burkinis include doctors who might save the life of someone you love, include scientists seeking cures for cancer, include people who would eagerly share information of any impending act of terror, if they knew about it.

Does it matter that whenever groups are profiled and smeared, innocent people are inevitably harassed, hurt, sometimes even killed, by those who take the cue that hatred is now sanctioned? Does it matter that teasing and bullying of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Arab and South Asian students is now rampant, and that our children routinely witness this? Mean and intolerant behaviors, trends and policies are, in themselves, virulent contagions, which impact everyone in a culture – perpetrators, victims and bystanders. Ask an entire generation of Germans. Is it acceptable that large numbers of innocent people have been victims of assaults, and even murder, by Islamophobic and xenophobic perpetrators?

Beach Bags vs Burkas

Those who purvey the most facile, superficial anti-Muslim stereotypes the hardest are those who have the most to gain. And they don’t care about the impact and consequences. They are garnering votes, or viewers, or selling their books, or collecting huge speakers’ fees. They are happily scapegoating Muslims because it is convenient to have a group to blame for deep and complex problems our societies face, or because some vestigial aspect of our tribal origins clings tenaciously to having an “Other” to target.

Are we humans advancing, or regressing to barbarity? In answer, please do not cite, in comments, the barbaric acts of individuals and tiny percentages of people, to justify wholesale labeling and smearing of vast groups of humanity. Obviously there are vile, destructive evil-doers among us, of every ethnicity, religion, and color; people who commit horrific, despicable atrocities.

People who can just as easily pack an automatic weapon in a beach bag, as under a burka.

Our job is to deplore the real acts of the real perpetrators of terror, of every stripe, and to work against becoming a culture that bounces stereotypes, fear-mongering, incitements, hatred, and atrocities back and forth, exacerbating trauma and destruction, until we are universally submerged in it. Yet it’s obvious that there are people who get off on the idea of a ‘clash of civilizations,’ who exhibit satisfaction, even glee, over any tragic events they can use to justify their positions.

Volleying Destruction Back and Forth

There are those who justify taking innocents’ eyes, for innocents’ eyes taken. (Those who perpetrate this are not innocent.)

Can we not agree to condemn the destruction of innocents, anywhere, in any circumstances; also to not glory in our victimization when we are targeted, or revel in victories that involve the innocent sacrifice of others? We take full offense when the following behaviors are directed at us. Can we concede that it is equally offensive and inciting to others, when we casually or purposefully direct these same behaviors to ‘their’ side?

  • smearing entire groups
  • disregard for innocents, or intentional targeting of innocents
  • generalized destruction, dismissively termed “collateral damage” to innocents
  • holding entire groups responsible for independent actions of individuals, over whom the groups have no control or influence
  • fomenting of generalized stereotyping, fear, suspicion, and hatred 
  • incitements to mass eradication, whether by anonymous online commenters, general populations, media pundits, politicians, or leaders

Tragically, we’ve been all-too-easily indoctrinated to engage in such stereotypes and behaviors. Our human fellows have fallen for perpetrating and justifying the destruction of innocent Native Americans, blacks, Armenians, Jews, gays, Roma, Bangladeshis, Cambodians, Bosnians, Tutsis, … and the list goes on. We are masterful at spiraling animosity and hate, at fomenting war and annihilation, even inciting the destruction that ricochets back to ourselves, in response to the tensions, animosities, and grievances we stir in the world.

Relinquish our Role as Bystanders and Take Serious Matters Seriously

What we desperately need is to think, hard, about the role we must play, to foster creativity and cooperation on this planet, so that it, and we, its inhabitants, may survive.

Most of us need to relinquish our role as bystanders and to take serious matters seriously. Burkini bans – far from trivial – are really about indicting all Muslims. They are the latest element in the smearing of every Muslim which has become normalized, accepted, and purposefully nurtured in our time. They are cynically calculated incitements to whole new chapters of intolerance, exclusion and hatred, which slide toward even deeper levels of destruction.

If you think I am overstating this, just read the hateful comments, including calls to genocide, that currently pile up under any article about anything to do with Muslims. And visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in person or online, and note the individual and incremental stepping stones of policies and legislation that led, inexorably ... to the Holocaust itself.

Author’s Postscript on Being an Ally Against this Oppression:

I’ve been considering what I would do at the beaches where the ban is in force – as a non-Muslim, and as someone who believes this policy is wrong, dangerous, unjust, and hypocritical. If I were male or female, wearing any sort of coverup or wetsuit, I might put a sign on it: “This is my burkini.” Or, I might buy a burkini and wear it, to test whether it is only Muslims who are are to be banned and penalized, or whether a secular Jewish woman, who just likes the fashion, or wants full sun protection, would be equally held liable. Are the French police checking the religion of those wearing burkinis? Are there now to be religious tests for who may enjoy the beaches?

Or, I might improvise some similar beach fashion; leggings, a long-sleeved tunic, and a wrapped headscarf or hood, to test the arbitrary policing of the policy. If multitudes of non-Muslim women, who object to these laws, wore burkinis, or parts of burkinis (just the tunic, or the outfit minus the head cover), or improvised variations of similar costumes, somewhat akin to the Danes who wore yellow stars to support their fellow Jews under the Nazis; it would expose and interfere with this arbitrary and hypocritical ban, purportedly targeting women on the basis of what they choose to wear...in actuality, targeted because of who they are.

Imagine the police, comically perplexed by an array of all sorts of variations of this look, trying to sort out all the arbitrary permutations of this unjust policy. One can imagine it as quite comedic, if it were not so insidious. Someday, when this is history, people will recall those who interfered with and stood up to injustice and intolerance.

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post on August 25, 2016.