opinion

A Muslim woman was ordered by police to take off her clothes on a beach.

The decision of 15 French towns to prohibit women from wearing burkinis on public beaches has been widely criticised as racist, sexist, and entirely irrational. Despite the strong arguments against the ban that have made their way into public discourse, it’s a series of images of an ordinary woman trying to cover herself on the beach that has most effectively portrayed the absurdity of the new law. Powerful photos published on Wednesday morning shared images of a woman wearing a headscarf, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, minding her own business, who had been surrounded and challenged by police.

In the images, she is shown removing her shirt under the instruction of the officers. It should be noted that she’s not actually wearing a burkini – just conservative clothing at the beach – but according to the authorities, she had failed to wear “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”. Right. Because we all think about whether or not our clothing reflects ‘good morals’ before we leave the house. “Just let this sink in,” read the tweet. “Men with guns forcing a woman to undress, with the weight of the law behind them.” It was upon seeing the images of a peaceful, relaxed woman, surrounded by four police officers demanding she dress a certain way, that the ridiculousness of the entire situation fully dawned on me. ‘Hang on,’ I thought. How the hell did acts of terrorism, carried out almost exclusively by men, result in policing what women wear? How did violent acts by violent people become conflated with innocent people’s religious beliefs? How on earth is a person’s clothing choice a symbol of terrorism?

A woman wearing a burkini. Image via Getty.
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These questions have not, in any meaningful capacity, been addressed by French authorities.

And they likely won't be - because the assumptions upon which their decisions are based are entirely incorrect. Put simply, Muslims are not terrorists and 'Muslim' clothing or customs are not violent. Yet, that's exactly what French officials are incidentally claiming.

The Mayor of Cannes, who introduced the ban, said “beach dress that ostentatiously shows a religious affiliation” was not welcome when the area was a target for terrorism, and said wearing Islamic clothing was offensive and risked provoking others. How? If one's clothing choice risks 'provoking others', is it not the 'others' we need to be wary of? It's almost baffling; the belief that a problem as complex as terrorism can be tackled by policing what women wear.  Of course, not everyone shares in my frustrations. A number of comments in response to the viral tweet of the woman surrounded by police argued that the images were "taken out of context," and that beaches in places like Saudi Arabia don't allow women to wear bikinis. What's the difference?

Watch: 20 things Muslim women are sick of hearing from men. (Post continues after video.)

The woman, identified only as Siam, was given a fine and will ultimately have a criminal record for her 'offence'. When asked about the incident, she said, "Today, we are not allowed on the beach. Tomorrow, the street? Tomorrow, we’ll be forbidden from practising our religion at all?" It's ironic, really, that this kneejerk reaction to terrorism doesn't look unlike terrorism itself. We're so scared that terrorism will impact our way of life, but in France, it's the Muslim population whose way of life is truly threatened. These laws are eerily reminiscent of how some of history's greatest atrocities began. It starts with the burkini — but where does it end?