Ed’s Note: Following publication of this article, The Conseil d’Etat (State Council), France’s highest administrative court, ruled that burkini bans were “strictly illegal”
France is enhancing its reputation as a racist country. The mayor in Cannes has banned the use of the burkini on its public beaches. Other French cities have followed suit and there is some talk about Quebec doing the same. Everyone knows that adopting such a ban in Quebec would be disastrous.
It’s time to fully discuss why.
The burkini is in essence a full body wetsuit with a head and neck covering and sometimes a sort of over dress. The arguments in favor of such bans in France have been those of secularism, anti-terrorism and ironically, “good morals.” Sadly, these bans only serve to alienate Muslims and encourage the kind of behavior in many non-Muslims that could only be called immoral.
One Montreal lifeguard described the complaints she got when women came to the public pool in burkinis.
Many whiners would claim the burkini wasn’t a real swimsuit and that Muslim women were swimming in their dirty pajamas. The complainers, the most vocal of whom were white middle aged men and seniors, would argue that if Muslim women could wear it to swim, it would encourage others to wear whatever they wanted to the pool. She described one incident she witnessed at a pool in Ville Saint Laurent where one such man spat on a woman wearing a burkini and told her to
“Leave and don’t come back, Dirty Arab!”
When officials at the pool confronted the man and told him to leave, pointing that the first rule of pool use was that it was a safe and respectful environment, he claimed that spitting on her was ok because the woman was already dirty.
This kind of behavior is only going to increase if a burkini ban is imposed as bigots will see such a law as carte blanche to continue to express their hate. Fortunately, Quebec and Canada have laws against imposing a ban like those in France and any such ban would surely be challenged in the courts the moment the government would try to enforce it.
First, we have the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is part of the Canadian Constitution and is therefore among the highest, most entrenched laws in Canada.
The Charter not only guarantees freedom of conscience and religion, but also the right “to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability” (my underlines).
The law applies to any and all actions by the government and anyone acting on the government’s behalf. If a law is successfully challenged under the Canadian Charter, the courts will strike it down or keep it in place to avoid chaos, thus giving the government a chance to enact another law that better conforms to the Charter.
The Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms also has protections against the laws like burkini bans.
The Quebec Charter is considered a quasi-constitutional law, meaning that though it’s not entrenched in the constitution and was enacted like any other law, it is considered one of the highest laws in the province and is enforced as such. Unlike the Canadian Charter, the Quebec Charter applies not only to the government and anyone acting on its behalf, but also to private parties.
The Quebec Charter guarantees “freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.” It also guarantees freedom from discrimination, distinction, and exclusion based on race, colour, sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, civil status, age except as provided by law, religion, political convictions, language, ethnic or national origin, social condition, a handicap. Since the burkini is an expression of one’s faith and culture, the right to wear it would certainly be protected under the Quebec Charter, which means that the government and any private establishment that would bar women wearing it would be breaking the law.
Whenever bans of anything religious are brought up, there is always someone who raises a secularist feminist argument. They’ll claim that such bans are good for women because they’ll free them from dress codes that oppress them.
The problem is that bans like these don’t free women.
They rob women of their sense of agency.
If a faith or culture, be it strict Islam, Mormonism, or Satmar Judaism, for example, forbids women from doing anything outside the home without being covered from head to toe, any law that keeps them from engaging in activities in those coverings is going to hold them back and make them more reluctant to participate in secular society, not less.
Instead of shaming women for dressing in a way that their faith or culture dictates, we should be expressing friendly curiosity and a sense of welcome.
A woman who feels safe taking a swim in a public pool in a burkini will feel safe going to a library to maybe pick up a copy of The Feminine Mystique, and maybe one day take a self-defense course (if she hasn’t already done these things).
Whether a woman is covered up of her own free will or under the pressure from an abusive family or religious leader is none of anyone’s business unless her safety and the safety of her children (if any) are in jeopardy. The only thing we can do is make sure that all women feel safe enough to make their own choices about their bodies, whether that choice includes remaining covered up or not.
Banning the burkini would only exacerbate tensions between secular society and Muslims in Quebec. After the disaster of the proposed Secular Charter, now is a time to heal rifts, not make them worse.
* Images via WikiMedia Commons