One of the West’s strongest values is tolerance, and many countries do a pretty decent job of living up to that ideal. So when France bans a swimsuit simply because of the religion it represents, it only makes sense that people around the world would cry religious intolerance. However, the burkini ban and the burqa’s symbolism are not as simple as many people would like to make it seem.
To many critics, the burqa is not exactly a symbol of liberty. The outfit, which covers all but the hands and eyes of its female wearer, is not always worn freely by women. Pressure can come from Muslim society to wear the religious coverings in order to ‘not tempt men’, or for dignity’s sake. If adultery or ‘dishonorable’ activity is suspected in more severe Muslim communities around the world, punishments usually fall on the women. Through a sexist interpretation of Sharia law, Muslim men are often left as the judges of Muslim women’s lives.
The purported reason burkinis, a swimsuit in accordance with Muslim tradition, were banned in France was to avoid discrimination against muslims. One of the cities pushing the ban, Nice, was the target of an ISIS-claimed terrorist attack earlier this year. 86 were killed and over two hundred were injured after a truck driver drove through crowds in a blocked off street. Rather than being sparked by Islamophobia, many officials claim the the burkini ban was put into action to avoid a ‘civil war’ in the city, as tension is nearing a boiling point.
This is where the term ‘tolerance’ comes under fire. What exactly does it mean to be tolerant if the matter itself may be an effect of discrimination? Wouldn’t banning the burkini and the burqa be a thing of liberation for many women? Doesn’t a city have a right to ban outfits linked to a religion whose members have killed and threatened so many of their citizens?
Interpretation is key. A religion can be interpreted differently by different kinds of people. Individuals can commune under the same religion, but practice it entirely in their own ways. Where one person practices their religion violently, someone else may preach peace. A burqa may mean female oppression to one wearer, and religious dignity to another who freely chooses.
The West should pride itself on allowing its citizens to live as they want to, while avoiding intolerance. This means all religious practices should be allowed except for those that encroach on others’ liberties. France’s highest courts could find no legitimate reason to ban burkinis, as they posed no risk to other swimmers or citizens. Since the face is left uncovered, security concerns surrounding veiled faces are also void. An administrative burkini ban, then, makes very little sense in the free world.