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France's fear of the 'burkini' has nothing to do with protecting women

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There was, of course, a subtext to the Paris murders of Charlie Hebdo staff and Jewish shoppers in a kosher supermarket all along. Vile crimes by any standard, these were the work of ISIS-supporting Islamists, and so the murders immediately became iconic. The Other had struck again.

The Twitter hashtag #JeSuisCharlie became a trend overnight. The streets filled up with proud defenders of freedom of expression. Marching with the locals were the representatives of many nations -- including such freedom lovers as the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to France Mohammed Ismail Al-Sheikh, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Bahraini Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry, and the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

Freedom of expression? You can't even wear a T-shirt saying "Boycott Israel" in France without being heavily fined. It goes without saying that national outrage over the murders was entirely understandable, but the outpouring of anger had little to do with the right to draw insulting cartoons. (The attack on the supermarket by the same crowd, wherein four more people were murdered, doesn't seem to have drawn nearly the same amount of attention. There were no #JeSuisYohan marches.)

More recently, a Tunisian deliveryman drove a truck into crowds in Nice who had gathered to celebrate Bastille Day. The carnage was considerable: 85 people killed, 308 injured. One-third of his victims were Muslim. The driver was reported to have liked to drink, showed no interest in religion, and hooked up regularly with men and women through dating sites. But it made no difference: the terrorist narrative took over.

Certain elements in France, including municipal officials and police, now had just the excuse they needed to lash out at the Other. They made women their targets, not a new thing in France, although the ritual humiliation of women is hardly unknown elsewhere. In any case, brutal misogyny and racism masked by hypocritical righteousness soon became become the order of the day.

The beach in summer is always a pleasant place to relax. But in France beaches are now locations of fear and loathing for Muslim women, as the photograph above amply demonstrates. A number of small-town mayors with Islamophobic axes to grind have criminalized the wearing of Islamic swimsuits, miscalled "burkinis" (they do not cover the face; in fact they look rather like wetsuits). Enforcement by armed police soon followed. In the above photo, a squad of burly cops forced a Muslim woman to strip off her outer garments in public. For good measure they threatened to pepper-spray another woman with a hijab who wasn’t even wearing a "burkini," as onlookers jeered at her.

Some will wonder how the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité could come to this. But in fact that motto, arising out of the French Revolution, needs to be looked at a little more closely. Remember that the much-applauded Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, proclaimed in 1789, applied in full just to a small minority of so-called "citoyens actifs" -- male property owners 25 years of age or older. Nothing much has changed, it appears: in France, some citizens are still more equal than others. Fraternité, of course, applies only to men.

Women's bodies are always a site of struggle in the culture wars. Women are such tempting targets, after all. The new attacks on Muslim women have nothing to do with laïcité, a concept of secularity that applies to state institutions, not beaches. Recall the burqa ban of 2011: it singled out an estimated 2,000 women out of a total population of 66 million, including 5 million Muslims. They would no longer be allowed to roam in public spaces. It wasn't that ordinary French citizens couldn't see their faces; the law made sure that those citizens wouldn't see them at all.

In solidarity, it seems, some French non-Muslims are now hurrying to buy "burkinis" for themselves. While the fellow-feeling is admirable, it piles on the difficulties: when nuns are murdered, there isn't a run on habits and veils. This gesture, however well-intentioned, simply reaffirms the Otherness of the original targets.

The excessive (to Western eyes) emphasis on Islamic female modesty is, not to put too fine a point upon it, oppressive. We have all seen Muslim women cloaked head-to-toe in black cloth in the full heat of summer, accompanied by Muslim men in shorts and T-shirts. But before we hasten to jump to conclusions, consider string bikinis, which were once outlawed on beaches for not being modest enough.

In both cases, women are peremptorily told what they can and can't wear. Their personal spaces are invaded by differing patriarchal norms of "too much" and "too little." If burqas and "burkinis" are the clothing of submission, the women in the photograph might be forgiven for not welcoming their liberation virtually at gunpoint. There are no free choices for women, only arbitrary diktats (and more subtle cultural pressures) that determine their mode of dress, in France as elsewhere.

The Republic has been scarred by violence in the past few years, but that continuing trauma is creating more victims. Demanding integration, the state is deepening alienation and division instead, giving official sanction to racism and misogyny. Again, it seems, the terrorists have won.

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