The secular bikini

Beachwear and the republic

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 15.08.16

The matter of beachwear has been making headlines this week. There was that excellent photograph of Egyptian and German beach volleyball players facing off at the net at the Olympics in Rio. Doaa Elghobashy, the Egyptian, was all covered up, complete with hijab, while Kira Walkenhorst wore a bikini. Till 2012 it was mandatory for beach volleyballers to wear bikinis or a one piece swimsuit. The international association even specified how much skin could be covered up by the bikini: no more than seven centimetres at the hip from top to bottom, a ruling criticized by many as a transparent bid to sex up the sport.

So the confrontation at the net could have been read as an illustration of the way in which women's bodies in the East and West were controlled by rules not of their own making, with the Egyptian girl constrained by a patriarchal faith's definition of female modesty, while the bikini might have served as a symbol of the West's exploitative sexualization of the female body. But that would have been a lazy and inaccurate reading. Beach volleyball's rules were changed in 2012 allowing the Brazilians to wear full body suits during the London Olympics because of the cold. On the other side, Doaa's teammate in Rio, Nada Meawad, chose to play without a hijab.

If beach volleyball's rule changes are an example of common sense pre-empting the clash of civilizations, the antics of two French mayors on the Riviera threaten to turn beachwear choices into a defence of the West. Cannes's daft mayor, David Lisnard, declared that the full body swimsuit favoured by some Muslim women, was "a symbol of Islamic extremism". He banned the 'burkini' from Cannes beaches till the end of August because it was not "respectful of good morals and secularism". Less amusingly he argued that beachwear "which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is liable to create risks of disrupting public order".

That last statement effectively argues that sea-bathing while being visibly Muslim is dangerous. Instead of doing his job and protecting people at risk (if, indeed, they are at risk), the mayor declares that they are the problem, because their costumes are Islamic provocations, a threat to France's secular morality. A few days later, another Riviera resort, Villeneuve-Loubet, banned the full body swimsuit. Like Cannes, Villeneuve-Loubet's new law stipulated that beachwear had to be respectful of "morality and secular principles". "In France," declared its mayor, Lionnel Luca, "one does not come to the beach dressed to display one's religious convictions..."

The idea that covering up on a beach is a threat to secular order is a peculiarly French form of political lunacy. Even the mayors seemed aware of the howling madness of their position because the mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet simultaneously argued that he was banning the burkini because he didn't think it was hygienic to swim in it. Cannes's mayor, trying hard to be even-handedly repressive, suggested he might ban the sari next because it could hamper the rescue efforts of lifeguards. Despite these supplementary, 'practical' justifications, the principal reason for the prohibition of the 'burkini' remained the affront to secularism and the threat to public order.

It's worth remembering that this isn't the opinion of two maverick mayors; the administrative court in Nice rejected a plea to suspend Cannes's banning ordinance, ruling that the town's decision 'respected' France's constitutional position on secularism. Laïcité, or French secularism, is an ideological attempt to create a public sphere purged of the influence of organized religion. The project dates back to the French Revolution and it was given comprehensive legal form in 1905 when a law was passed formalizing the separation of France's churches and the State. The problem with laïcité is that it makes the historical experience and practice of a relatively homogenous Christian population in the 19th and early 20th centuries a template for regulating the behaviour of a vastly more diverse modern society. This means that the secular citizen, France's Everyman, is, by default, defined by a majoritarian consensus.

Ironically, in 1905, when the law was passed, the 'burkini' wouldn't have been seen as an offence against French secularism because every woman who visited a beach at the turn of the century was similarly covered up. So in the first decade of the 20th century, the French woman at the beach wore a dark wool dress that came up to her knees. Under the dress she wore bloomers and the skin below her knees was obscured by black stockings and bathing slippers, her hair hidden by a bathing cap. A hundred years ago, the burkini would have seemed daringly minimalist and revealing.

But now, because the habits of a majority of French bathers have changed, France's definition of secular beachwear has changed. To be naked on a French beach is consonant with Lisnard's "good morals and secularism" but to be covered up is an intolerable provocation, an Islamist threat to public order. In its stupider, more unthinking aspects, laïcité is no more than a coercive invitation to assimilate, a bid to force immigrants into French moulds.

The assumption that laïcité is culturally, historically and religiously neutral, untouched by France's imperial history, uncoloured by its experience of Christianity or its encounter with racism and anti-Semitism, is a form of smugness, of insularity. It is precisely this assumption that allows Marine Le Pen to pose plausibly as a champion of republican values and laïcité. French liberals and socialists might splutter but it is the majoritarianism written into laïcité that allows Le Pen to segue from anti-Semitism to Islamophobia within the rhetoric of 'secularism'. It's the reason why Marianne, France's goddess of Liberty, can look like Marine le Pen or sound like Brigitte Bardot.

France's dogmatism about laïcité can sometimes be a strength. It allows its writers to call out religious viciousness clearly, unmuffled by the flannel of multiculturalism. But the costs of this insularity, this unselfconsciousness, are high. It permits the State and its citizens to dress up majoritarian prejudice as laïcité and to act upon it.

Some years ago a French town called Villeneuve-sur-Lot organized a literary festival with an Indian focus. There was a lunch sponsored by the organizers for their Indian visitors, a wonderful, long drawn-out affair. It wasn't an à la carte meal; it was a many course affair with a fixed menu. The only main course on offer was langue de boeuf. So for the dozen or more desis at the table, most of whom were at least nominally Hindu, the choice was between eating braised beef tongue or going hungry. The organizers weren't trying to wind us up; it just didn't occur to them that there could be a class of intelligent people who would object to eating beef. The story has a happy ending. Luckily for our hosts, by some freakish coincidence, no one at the table thought beef was taboo: Mahasweta Devi, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Nirmal Verma, Amitav Ghosh and the rest worked their way through the ox tongue with diligence and enthusiasm.

The moral of the story is that a heroic commitment to ignoring difference doesn't advance the cause of secularism. More often than not it leads either to insensitivity or petty intolerance of the sort exhibited by the Riviera's mayors. More dangerously, it tempts apparatchiks into celebrating homogeneity as a kind of social good. A republic that polices the beachwear choices of a tiny minority of its citizens by invoking laïcité, isn't secular; it's deranged.