So far I have kept out of the burkini row, considering it as a vast red herring, designed to take our attention away from more important matters, such as the spread of of Islamist ideology and also of unacceptable aspects of Islamic community behaviour such as the growth of Sharia courts. However, it has become such a big question that some comment needs to be made even though the Economist thinks that the row will now start dying down with the holiday season coming to an end. The Economist has been known to be wrong before in its predictions and, in any case, also thinks that this issue, which has now become linked to the whole subject of French identity in the light of terrorist attacks is likely to be important in the forthcoming presidential elections.
They are not wrong on the latter. Nicolas Sarkozy, who has announced his candidature, seems to be proposing a change in the French Constitution with an article that would ban burkinis. I cannot help feeling that is going a little over the top even by Sarkozy's standards.
First of all, I should like to get this out of the way: those burkinis are truly hideous and stupid garments. Why would you go to the beach or into the sea if practically every inch of you skin is covered? Possibly because you have been bullied by the men in your family and community (who, incidentally, do not cover themselves up but prefer to wear cool and open garments) or possibly because you have somehow accepted that this is of vital importance to the Muslim religion. Certainly, the link that has been displayed by protesters between a ban on burkini on beaches and Islamophobia would indicate that those people certainly believe that covering women from top to toe is central to their religion. A good many non-Muslims, either on the left or among supposed liberals and libertarians appear to support this point of view.
Apart from many articles on the subjects there were a few interesting developments. Hizonner the Mayor of London took it upon himself to lecture the Mayor of Paris (who, not having a beach handy, had not actually issued a ban) that women must not be told by anyone what they can and cannot wear. That is, of course, absolute piffle. Women and men are frequently told what they can and what they cannot wear in public places. I am sure Hizonner would not be too happy if any women decided to wander round in Nazi uniforms or KKK hoods (not that I am advocating that they should) though, I am equally sure, he would see nothing wrong in them wearing Maoist caps, Red Army insignia or t-shirts with pictures of that mass murderer Che Guevara.
In any case, is this the same Mayor of London whose first decision was to ban certain ads on the tube because he did not think women could be trusted to be able to deal with certain images of bodies without either getting impossibly depressed or rushing off to emulate the pictures? It would appear that Hizonner's thinking on the subject is somewhat erratic while his understanding of his own position and of the French constitutional structure non-existent.
So then we had the supreme French administrative court overturning the ban at Villeneuve-Loubet, which could have had implications for the other towns where it had been imposed except that those Mayors insisted on it continuing. Most people will leave those beaches this week-end at the latest with les vacances coming to an end, but not all. Will the row continue despite the Economist's prediction?
There is many an indignant comment from human rights organizations, Islamic groups and various so-called liberals and libertarians as well as those on the left who can be relied on to produce the usual waffle that these bans have nothing to do with security and everything to do with politics. Indeed so. But then the wearing of the burkini is a political decision. You may think that it is not worth getting excited about but let us not pretend: it is not a fashion or lifestyle choice, it is a political point made rather obviously and forcefully.
Consider some other garments whose use has grown in the last ten - fifteen years. It so happens that I have lived for years in areas where there have always been many Muslim families, shops and businesses. Most of them are either immigrants from the Indian sub-continent of their descendants. Until about fifteen years ago the women often wore traditional clothes that were light and comfortable and covered their heads, if at all, with a loose scarf. We did not even know the words hijab and niquab as they were of no importance in the societies we lived in. Any women in veils (niquab) or burquas (another word we have had to learn) were to be seen around Harrods or Harley Street. They were visitors.
All that has changed, partly because there are now more people here who have arrived from the Arab Middle East and North Africa but most importantly because clothing is being used to make political points. Far more women now wear tight scarves and even veils; even little girls are now covered up and wear those scarves. Those are not fashion choices. They may be lifestyle choices but, above all, they are political statements, as are the burkinis. They say something quite definite: we do not want to integrate, we insist on keeping in our separate communities and, most importantly, in those communities women are hidden away one way or another, unequal in their lives.
As it happens, there are certain complexities even in that. There are a good many young Muslim women of different backgrounds in Britain who do wear often highly colourful and excitingly patterned headscarves and wear what might be called "modest" clothing, i.e. trousers and long coats and jackets. They are also highly educated, in jobs and careers. It seems that hose headscarves are a matter of identity for them and the way they can reconcile their integration into British society with their background. This is a relatively new development and one cannot quite predict how it will work out. One knows young women who then marry equally advanced Muslim men or even men outside their religion and continue along the path of complete integration; one also hears stories of young women of that kind being put under pressure and worse by thir families and being forced to retreat into oppression and backwardness.
Should we fight the burkini? It's not precisely a problem in Britain but France is not that far away. On the whole, it is not quite as poisonous as the wearing of the niquab, that should be, at the very least, considered on the same level as any other clothing that hides the face. People are not allowed to wear motorcycle helmets? Then they should not be allowed to wear niquabs either. That seems fair enough. Of course, the veil is a symbol of the oppression of women and always has been. Should we legislate against it? That raises all sorts of other issues but the general move in opinion in a number of European countries is towards legislation, precisely because it is a political issue.
What of the burkini? My argument with people who are determined to get that hideous garment banned is that this is not a battle we could ever win. So, do not let us fight it. Beyond that, while I dislike the garment and really dislike the political point it makes I cannot help feeling that the women who go to the Riviera do have more privileges than most of their co-religionists. If they do not want to use those privileges to fight for their own and others' freedom and equality, as many very courageous women do in far worse circumstances and if they want to look like particularly inelegant versions of seals, maybe we should just leave them to it and concentrate on other battles.