Saturday, August 27, 2016

Lifting the market’s scene: Burkinology and the right to be otherwise

Image: 'Burkini not allowed' by Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño (Flickr/Creative Commons) 

I promised myself not to do too much computer work on my holidays, but felt compelled to take an hour or so to provide this note on the circus ‘controversy’ of the ‘burkini ban’. Interestingly, this controversy stemmed from a digital ‘rumour’, a privately video-recorded encounter of local police with a bathing Muslim woman in the new swimming clothing. The police was caught on camera asking the woman to remove the clothing – a humiliating demand for anyone rejecting the Western cult of Western holiday (s)exposure. Several places proceeded to bar clothing that “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks”. The Nice ban in particular referred to the truck attack in the city on 14 July that claimed 86 lives, as well as the murder 12 days later of a Catholic priest near the northern city of Rouen.

How can a woman with her children on the beach pose a threat or insult the memory of violence? Please note that I have little interest in defending religious pleas for respect of a custom that has been publicly discussed as conservative and ‘patriarchal’ in its proclivity to endorse the treatment of women as ‘human property’ on the one hand, and a ‘means of resistance’ towards Western imperialist hegemony on the other. It all depends on the Western or Eastern perspective you adopt, so you are bound to be on someone’s losing end and target range. Let us consider instead for a while, how several media conduits ‘framed’ (after human rights and feminist activists) the issue as a violation of women’s control over their own body.

Undoubtedly, there is something about this line of argumentation we cannot forgo. But its unmistakable racial blindness, the replacement of a taboo in global politics (an attack on the non-Muslim ‘Other’s’ right to self-presentation) with a ‘progressive’ statement on gender inequality is as scandalising as it is peculiarly comical. The slippage has been picked up upon by Muslim and non-Muslim women protesters outside London’s French Embassy, who, in bikinis and burkinis sat on spread sand to play with their children and display their banners. ‘The war on terror does not begin inside a woman’s wardrobe,’ one protester noted.

Hence my opening reference to the ‘circus’: although public debates on gender rights take for granted all women’s integration into consumer circuits (it is no problem to discuss the advertising or distribution and purchase of burkinis as such), they might condemn individual (and by extension collective) displays of the fashion by their users, if they do not conform to given Western norms. I wonder if what is debated is actually understood or merely ‘modified’ to placate the audience – a bit like Mohammed Farah’s customary genuflection after his victories, which always lacks religious interpretation by commentators. Where there is a taboo, there is silence – and so is the case with the obvious insertion of the new Muslim femininity’s public display in contemporary global markets.

 Image: 'Burkini' by Cabellmon (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Once you considered this perspective, you open one of Pandora’s Hidden Boxes. The Box talks about the ways popular cultural representations serve as an uncomfortable reminder of our inability to think in and act on the other’s terms. But this exceeds the contours of anti-Islamophobic debates: it took several decades for the bikini to be established as the symbol of female emancipation from patriarchal control – a victory achieved only thanks to the prevalence of market imperatives. As uncomfortable as this realisation may be to critics of capitalism, it helps to put things in new perspective. In the alleged burkini ‘clash of civilisations’, we could potentially encounter a re-negotiation of global market hegemonies that can decide to support or reject cultural inclusivity. The French decision to ban the garment from public spaces can thus be construed as retrogressive and parochial in the language of fashion only under certain conditions. ‘Fashion’ is, after all, a path to Western civilisation, a way to tame the savage body and tailor the alien soul to the demands of industrial production and consumption. It is telling that a relevant widely circulated ‘joke’ on ‘Burkinology’ figures a photo in which two motorbikers in full gear, suit and helmet, sunbathe among half-naked holiday makers. In case one presumes this is a creative protest, it must be stressed that the true meaning of the image is lost. A quick reverse image search for the photo on Google shows that it was uploaded to this French motorcycling forum in 2014 and on FunnyJunk.com as far back as 2012. Yet, the photo’s new viral spread in recent days via Twitter and Facebook has been firmly connected to the burkini clashes. The revamped ‘joke’ in the social media is titled ‘Motokini’, cleverly suggesting in my humble opinion that the adoption of culturally inclusive swimwear is just a subcultural craze, akin to those maintained by motobikers’ clubs.

It must be getting hot with all this stuff on you. As holiday day draws to a close for many of us, the Burkini Controversy seems more like a painful reminder of what will be (imminently) lost for a good few months: the idea and experience of sun-kissing relaxation on the coast of some beautiful seaside resort. Perhaps this harbours the domination of Western logic in the controversy: to ‘enjoy’ you must shed your everyday constraints and have a dip in the water carefree. The idea of holiday as entertainment or recreation is bound up with this lack of restraint – and how a Muslim woman, ‘bound and gagged’ in a burkini, as it were, enjoy her bathing and let others enjoy it too? Here, the French motto of equality, fraternity and freedom takes a hard punch in the stomach, for those set to digest the heritage and right to be human on one’s own peaceful terms.

I am supposed to on cybernetic holidays, so I leave the rest of you ponder on all these issues.