Day 399: Burkinis

A professor I admire and respect very much once spoke to us about the importance of writing only about things when we possess some kind of specialized knowledge.  This is excellent advice, which I have spent 399 days (and really, most days since) ignoring.  What’s that song about the good advice you just didn’t take?  Yeah.  That.

This writing project is something different.  It’s not about having the perfectly right answer when I sit down to write, but about the process of trying to find it, and using writing as a tool to do so.  I know that by writing this way I make myself an easy target, but I think it’s important to do it, mostly for myself, and also, maybe, to remind anyone who reads it, to remember that it’s not about having all of the answers, but a willingness to think about the questions.

Now let’s talk burkas and bikinis, or at least burkinis.

I read an article a few days ago about the mayor of Cannes banning burkinis on beaches (here is another more recent article about other towns banning burkinis).  This was especially interesting to me because only hours earlier I’d finished a discussion about philosophy with a friend who grew up in Paris and I’ve decided to learn French.  That’s a story for another day.  Anyway, I was eager to hear her thoughts, so I forwarded the article.  Her response intrigued me even more, and I’ve spent some amount of time thinking about the situation.

She pointed out that when she traveled to the UAE, she always respected their dress codes, and if France wants to implement a dress code of their own, for nonreligious reasons, that seems fair to her.  She was concerned Muslim women might feel attacked, but said she couldn’t say for sure, with everything that has happened, whether it was right or wrong.  She also mentioned that the older generations of immigrants (in France) seemed to be more willing and able to integrate and these kinds of issues seemed to be coming up more often, and she didn’t understand why that was happening.

I remember when France banned the burqa and niqab.  I was still in college and had not yet done any real thinking about the First Amendment, beyond acknowledging its existence and discussing it improperly, like any other college student with no formal training in the law.  I can remember discussing whether it was right or wrong and concluding that it was impossible to say for sure, and talking about what it might mean politically and whether the EU would intervene.  I can remember thinking about the dangers of moral relativism and the importance of understanding context.

I only remembered those things after that text from my friend.  Before her text, my mind got stuck in this box of First Amendment cases it couldn’t get out of.  I know France doesn’t have an equivalent to our First Amendment, of course, but I could only view the issue through the prism of the First Amendment and what nine individuals determine it protects or does not on any given day.  It’s almost like my brain was using what I know about the law and what would or would not be permitted to substitute for any larger sense of right or wrong.

That’s terrifying.

The thought that this could happen to my brain is scary enough, but the possibility that this could be the case for other people trained in the law, or for other people trained in any given profession, is much worse, and also explains a lot.  I think when learning about one thing requires so much effort and energy, it’s easy to get caught up in that, and it makes sense that our brains would try to focus in on one thing to better and fully understand it.

Another professor in law school talked a lot about the importance of educating the whole person, and teaching law students to take care of themselves.  Of course, he said all of this while assigning more reading than any other professor and using the Socratic even in second and third year courses, even if they met in the evenings (not that I hold a grudge), but that doesn’t make him wrong, and in fact, that approach might avoid exactly the kind of thing I’m concerned about.  Maybe requiring a first year, second year, and third year ethics course that focused on more than avoiding sanctions from the bar, that would make a difference.  Or maybe this is all part of life and the process and the people who want to think more deeply about these things will find opportunities to do that and people who don’t will be productive members of society.

I thought about all of this for a few days, specifically as it relates to burkinis, and while I was talking about this with HW, one of our children filled a glass of water in the kitchen and heard enough to be interested.  After two minutes on the First Amendment and another two minutes about the broader conversation in France, she was at least as informed as most adults and more than ready to share her opinion.

“That’s not fair that they won’t let those women practice their religion.  What they wear should be their choice.”

She picked up on and focused in on two important things.  First, this law specifically targets religion, which is a different thing than when a law just happens to conflict with it.  Consider, for example, the difference between saying, “No burkinis allowed on the beach,” which specifically targets Muslims and, “No street clothes allowed on the beach,” which is a generally applicable law.  In this country, even generally applicable laws can be struck down in many cases, in part because sometimes they disguise laws that are really intended to target one religious group.  Second, and this is equally as important, she recognized that while French authorities might claim to be helping women, and might actually believe they are, they are telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies in the same way some men in their own communities do.  We can’t say we believe women should have choices and then punish them for making a choice we don’t like.  Well, I guess we can, and people do it all of the time, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I pushed her a bit, because I like to challenge her and she likes to be challenged (almost as much as she likes to challenge me), and asked what she thought about French citizens who were victims of the more recent attacks and what it would be like to see someone walking around in a burkini at the beach, or whether other French citizens might be afraid if they saw someone wearing a burkini.

“Wearing clothes other people don’t like doesn’t hurt them, bad people doing bad things hurts them.  And if they are really afraid and think people who wear burkinis are dangerous, wouldn’t they want to know which people wear burkinis so they can stay away from them?”

Tough to argue with that.

I realize that this is a more complex issue than all of that, and I will not pretend to know what it’s like to live in France right now.  My friend made some good points and so did my daughter.

I don’t think the burkini ban is going to help anything, but I want to understand why some people think it will and to understand the cultural differences that could maybe explain the disconnect.

When I was chatting with my friend I said I could not imagine a politician here suggesting something like that, and then I remembered Donald Trump.  Donald Trump might suggest a ban on burkinis.  Maybe he already has?  I can’t keep track.







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