The burkini ban, the uniform civil code

Democracy abhors dress-codes.


France’s ban on the burkini and India’s ongoing debate over whether to implement a uniform civil code seem to have a common thread.

For the uninitiated: this is a burkini. Wearing a burkini in public was made a punishable offence by the governments of several towns and cities in France; these laws got the support of France’s socialist Prime Minister, whose argument is effectively that the French feel icky around women in burkinis and shouldn’t be made to. The ban has now been struck down by a high court in France as being against basic human rights.

I haven’t seen many cogent arguments for why the government should be able to tell somebody else what to wear, and still be allowed to call itself democratic. Doing both sounds to me like rank hypocrisy; or at least like not enough thought has gone into it.

I read a particularly interesting take on the burkini ban at The Ex Muslim (TEM). I agree with most (see footnote 1) of what is said there, as I’ve said before (here, here). This, coming from a muslim woman who has personally suffered, is poignant:

Looking at the woman who insists she wasn’t made to conform tells you nothing about the woman who didn’t want to conform, and hasn’t anything resembling the visibility to say so.

In India, each religion has its own laws for marriage, divorce, inheritence, etc, and the adoption of a common set of laws governing all Indians is a constitutional directive which we haven’t yet found a way of instituting. It won’t be easy. Recent legal challenges to triple talaq have gone predictably, with “liberal” commentators behaving exactly the way TEM says they do.

The only moral argument against the implementation of a uniform civil code is something TEM points out about the burkini ban and how it is counterproductive:

Let’s pretend (lolsob) that I am one of these women directly victimized by the very regressive ideology of modesty being opposed here. I have a bit of freedom being allowed to go to a pool in a burkini by my restrictive and intolerant family and community. And you’re going to ban me from that??? Thereby making it so on top of all my other restrictions I can’t swim too?

I think this should be the central question we ask ourselves in the debate in India over the uniform civil code: would implementing the uniform civil code make the lives of muslim women more difficult? I don’t have an answer, one way or the other. The arguments I’ve encountered that a uniform civil code might make life worse for women have been unconvincing, but that may be because I have a privileged armchair to sit on and philosophise from.

Footnote 1: My one quibble about TEM’s post is her characterisation of the false-equivalence that she says “liberals” resort to (in the service of cultural relativism, let’s say). She claims that liberals argue that muslim women in burqas and women in the west in bikinis are the same. I don’t know if people claim this, but by TEM’s metric, this is a crappy analogy:

When a woman’s community acceptance, respect, dignity, employability, marriageability, physical safety, enfranchisement, social mobility, access to social institutions, freedom, and autonomy hinge upon her daily, unwavering, public adherence to the bikini, then we can make this comparison.

When a woman cannot leave her home in anything other than a bikini without being deemed immoral and her human worth and family’s honor compromised, then we can make this comparison.

However, consider what I think is a fairer (…and lovelier?) analogy: women in the west are made to wear make-up in public; “made to”  through cultural norms and relentless social badgering. People went after an olympic athlete because her hair was frizzy

It still isn’t an entirely fair comparison, I don’t think; I’ve never heard of a woman stoned to death for not wearing make-up (or even disenfranchised). But it’s closer to what a self-hating liberal might argue than the burqa-bikini equivalency.