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Burkini ban in Britain? Wrong target, wrong gender, wrong discussion

September 4, 2016
Sikh Soldiers

Sikh Soldiers in France, World War 1

I’m writing this from a farmhouse in rural France – a place we’ve visited many times and will continue to visit in the future, all being well. We arrived the other day at the small regional airport outside Bergerac that serves the area. The Ryanair flight disgorged its usual complement of late season visitors. Cashmere-clad, middle-aged, middle-class Brits who have come to enjoy a couple of weeks of late summer warmth, wine and good eating. In amongst them, a smattering of people who looked like celebrities but probably aren’t – not that I could tell the difference. A ravaged rock star here, a best-selling novelist there.

There were few signs that times have changed since the attacks on Paris and Nice. The flight was full. The car rental companies were doing a roaring trade. The main difference was the presence of a lone soldier, heavily armed, patrolling the car park. Oh, and in the window of the local Mairie, there’s an A4 leaflet telling you what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. In French, of course.

But otherwise, situation normal. And since we were here last year, some enterprising chap has even opened a Lebanese restaurant in our local town. When we tried to get a table, he told us with a hint of arrogance that he was full. One import from the Arab world that the French are unlikely ever to reject is the cuisine.

No burkinis here – we’re a hundred miles from the sea, and there’s only one lake within a ten mile radius. In the local producers’ evening at the town square there wasn’t a hijab in sight. Only French and British families, mostly white, happily mingling as they tucked into their frites, escargots and brochettes.

I suppose this would be just the sort of place where the lone wolf might strike. A beautiful bastide where traditional France cheerfully blends with its British visitors as if the Hundred Years War had never taken place. There are plenty of small towns in France for the wolf to choose from, which lowers to minimal the likelihood of AK-47s ringing out on this town square. Minimal enough for us, anyway.

I suspect that the fear factor is somewhat less than minimal in France’s major cities. But no amount of fear justifies empty gestures such as the ban on burkinis. Some years ago I wrote in this blog a piece about face veils: The Veil of Fears. It was written before the coming of ISIS and its attacks in various corners of the globe, but I still believe that the central theme – that drawing attention to a style of dress turns that style into a gesture of defiance on the part of a minority against what the wearer considers an oppressive majority – still holds true.

The French ban – now overturned – made such an impact that the real winners will be the makers of burkinis, whose sales most likely will have rocketed.

As someone who used to wander through his student union in the early seventies dressed in an eighteenth century frock coat obtained from a source I have long since forgotten, I can testify that clothes differentiate. I certainly wouldn’t have been mistaken for a civil servant. Even though I didn’t really feel like a member of an oppressed minority, it still gave me a kick to watch the horn-rimmed specs twitch in indignation in my local high street.

Eventually my rather silly sartorial defiance melted away when I had to get a job. Nobody told me not to dress like a Georgian clerk. I just got bored of it.

So here’s the thing. If the far right politicos in Britain want their country back, they should remember that apart from a brief period in the Middle Ages, when a law was passed dictating permissible clothing for various social classes, for most of our history, governments have not sought to regulate styles of dress, however bizarre they might seem. Such regulation as has existed has been on practical grounds – those pertaining to uniforms, for example. Even in the choice of uniforms, we have always recognised diversity, as the picture of Sikh soldiers in World War 1 demonstrates. And when regulations are manifestly stupid – such as the ban in the Sixties on Sikh bus drivers wearing turbans – they have usually been repealed.

Changes to dress conventions have usually come about through social pressure and gradual changes in the law, not because some local mayor has determined that being covered up when going for a dip in the sea is offensive to his constituents.

Our laws do not condone arbitrary bans on apparel covering the head, or even the face. That should be a matter for the wearer. We should be worried less about appearance and more about mindset. Those who seek to change our society through threats, intimidation and violence are not the ones who cover their faces. More often or not they are men who dress and look like any other men.

We have more than enough laws that criminalise acts and expressions of hate, sufficient to lock up the likes of Anjem Choudary and his followers. And tempting as it might be to criminalise symbols of culture and religion, be they face veils, burkinis or even long beards on men, by doing so we go against the very traditions that those who “want our country back” seek to reinstate.

By banning burkinis and face veils, how do we differ in this respect from groups like ISIS, whose ideology we seek to eradicate, and who order women to cover up and men to wear long beards?

I’m not “in favour” of face veils. But nor do I like tattoos, Y-fronts and bling. And I’m not too keen on moustaches, for that matter. What really matters is the stuff that goes on inside peoples’ heads, not what they wear on their bodies.

Unfortunately, whether we like it, the seed of a distinctive kind of violence has been planted that is yielding its first crop. Snipping away at everything surrounding it above the ground will not eradicate the roots. We are not a country that is in the habit of applying sweeping measures to destroy an enemy within. We don’t do purges, ethnic cleansing or deportations, no matter how much the authoritarians among us would like us to.

We can’t force people to think differently. So the sooner we recognise that each generation faces different threats – real or perceived – to its well-being and security, and that this particular nightmare might take a decade or more to dissolve, the better we will come to terms with those threats and deal with them in a realistic and sustainable manner.

This is our world, and obsessing over what people wear over their hair and their faces isn’t going to change it.

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