An up-close look from diverse perspectives on Islam in France and the USA
A Six-Part Series by Lisa Feder
Paris, October 2016
Lisa Feder is an American cultural anthropologist based in Paris France. She engages in her own style fieldwork, a combined contemplative anthropology and embodied musical practice which she expresses through blogging, ethnographic film without narration, and oil paintings. She develops alternative cross-cultural immersion programs for American and Canadian professors and students catering to creative and imaginative ethnography.
Lisa has been studying Manding West African music of the jelis since 2000 in New York and West Africa. Jelis serve as oral historians, praise-singers, and spiritual leaders of their community through their music throughout Mali, Guinea, the Gambia, and now in ex-patriot communities worldwide. Manding people are mostly practicing Muslims. In light of the recent refugee crisis, the surge in terrorism, and growing concern about “Muslims” in Europe and the United States, Lisa invites us into some of her recent experiences with her French friends and with Guinean families living in New York. See more about her films and (imaginative) ethnographic techniques here.
Debating the Burkini
France, August 2016
I’ve just dipped into the Mediterranean again wearing my bikini. It is the tail end of summer vacation. I’m swimming with one Israeli and one French friend, both middle-age men, the French, in bathing trunks and the Israeli, in a speedo. We all live in Paris but we are visiting this beach near Marseilles. As we drove through Avignon on this Sunday afternoon, we took advantage of the mostly Muslim neighborhoods surrounding the city center. The stores stay open there, whereas most Catholic French stores are closed. A kindly young man scooped top-quality black olives from a large white plastic bucket for us. We picked out some fresh fruit, found some feta cheese and pita. Grateful to have procured these picnic supplies, we continue on our way.
From where we bathe at the beach, I can see one woman sitting on a towel wearing a hijab, her daily clothing comprised of a pair of pants, a tunic-length shirt, and a headscarf that covers her neck and head, but not her face. I have a simultaneous flash of excitement and fear. Is she allowed to wear that here? Will the police come?
I had just seen the sensationalist photo on Facebook and then on the news of the three French police men standing around a woman being made to remove this kind of clothing a few miles away from where I now swim. After the Nice terrorist attack in July 2016, some French coastal towns temporarily banned women from wearing Muslim modest clothing. I cringed at the humiliation that woman in the photo must have felt. It erupted into a debate in France this summer over the infamous “burkini.” If you haven’t seen one, a burkini is modest bathing attire for women made of spandex and nylon bathing material—pants, a tunic-length top and a hood that covers the hair, but not the face. It looks fairly normal to me, but I am not an average American, myself. First of all, I frequently wear full-length wetsuits, sometimes with a hood when I kite-surf in the Atlantic. The women I saw wearing burkinis looked far more attractive than I do. Secondly, as an anthropologist, I have spent time living in Muslim West Africa. When outside of the city like Banjul, the Gambia or Conakry, Guinea, I wear a full-length skirt, and at times, if I really don’t want to talk to men, I wear a scarf loosely over my head. This indicates that I am a pious married woman and less approachable without good reason. But most women don’t wear head scarves, married or not.
Islam spread to the Malinké region as early as the Eighth century AD through trade routes, but it did not have a strong influence among the people until Mansa Musa came to rule the Malian Empire (1312-1337) as the first devout leader. Islam brought education, literacy, and economic prosperity to the region with well-established trade routes across Africa. Unlike many Middle Eastern Muslim countries, Islam in this region of West Africa is moderate, tolerant of other religions, and largely mixed with Sufism (mystical Islam), as well as with animist folkloric practices. The governments are declared secular, and approximately 90% of the people are of the Muslim religion. Women of a married age generally wear colorful headwraps that tie around the head but do not use veils. The Gambia is a little more traditional than neighboring Mali and Guinea, but even there, as a Western woman, I am expected to follow the customary dress code and behavior.
With the dress codes of West African Muslims in mind, I turn to my French friend on this beach outside of Marseille to ask his views on the burkini. “It should be illegal,” he declares. It makes him feel uncomfortable, he tells me. It’s not French culture and he does not like it. “If we let the burkini pass, this beach will become half burkinis and half bikinis. This is France. We are a laïque country!”
The Israeli thinks that the French are barking up the wrong tree. “Yes, France has problems now,” he notes. “They let in too many immigrants. But we don’t ban clothing styles in Tel Aviv. We are a democracy. You see Arabs and Jews on our beaches fully clothed next to women in bikinis. The burkini is just a symbolic issue.”
Just before the Conseil d’Etat, the French state council and France’s highest court, was to vote on this national issue, another French friend of mine posted on Facebook, “I like my beaches happy and free and I don’t like burkinis.” I must admit I was rather shocked at his declaration. For me, a burkini is just no big deal. This statement erupted into a long Facebook string of supporters with a few dissenters. Several said that a person wearing a burkini shares the same views as people promoting a rigorous, fundamentalist Islam. Another asked, “Why weren’t they wearing it in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and why are they doing it now?” This person concludes it is because of the Saudi Wahhabi mandate to do so, a recent turn toward the conservative by the Sunni Muslims. Many agreed. Another explained that the younger generation born in France to immigrant Muslim parents are making a political statement to their elders that they, the youth, are more religious and therefore, better.
To be fair, some French friends reasoned that if we ban the burkini, then we must ban the habit of religious orders, the yarmulke, and other forms of faith-based dress. “So where is the diversity and tolerance in France, then?” Other non-French friends on Facebook (Japanese, Indian, Swedish living in Paris) commenting in the same thread agreed that banning the burkini is problematic. The most clever, I thought, asked, “Aren’t the French doing the same thing as the Saudis if we are to tell women what to wear? Let them decide for themselves.”
The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls declared that the “full-body swim wear represented the enslavement of women,” and he supported the local bans while rejecting nationwide legislation against them. (See Valls) One could see it that way, but it undermines women’s agency as well as the tenacious hold of cultural norms.
Isn’t it equally possible that some women, generation after generation, didn’t go to the beach and now can because they feel more comfortable in a burkini? Or is it feasible that this younger generation is discovering their religion like the American pop singer Matisyahu who went Hasidic for about ten years then returned to secular clothing and cut his hair? Surely not all women wearing burkinis are listening to a Saudi Arabian Wahabi mandate? Where are my French friends getting these ideas?
My American friends of about the same age and political persuasion as my French cohort generally hold the view that women should be allowed to wear what they want on the beach. “Who cares if they wear a burkini?” On the other hand, some American friends fear “Muslims” in general. Worrying about the burkini is not their primary concern, but some do worry about my living in Paris and walking through Muslim neighborhoods. I don’t share their fears.
The definition of discrimination is to negatively characterize and exclude a people as a whole rather than to judge individuals by their actions. Anthropologists have taken on a responsibility to expose cultural nuances, to problematize overgeneralizations of a group of people, and to aid in diminishing such prejudices: This is where cultural relativism and human rights meet and clash.
In light of the large number of Muslim refugees spreading through Europe with the concurrent rise in terrorist attacks worldwide, we risk distorting and simplifying a religious group that constitutes almost a quarter of the world population. Rather than perpetuate fear and discrimination, non-Muslims had better take a proactive role in educating ourselves and seeking out positive relationships with people of the Muslim faith so that we may steer the planet toward global harmony based on peaceful coexistence, together.
The Muslims I have befriended through ten years of studying West African music through an “embodied musical practice” have taught me much about patience, generosity, modesty, mutual respect, and diversity, values that co-align with and inform my way of meeting the world. These relationships, although not free from misunderstandings, have been extremely rewarding and, I believe, mutually beneficial. I offer a glimpse into these relationships in a series of blogs, not to underestimate the deeply concerning problems that our world faces today, but rather to speak to them from what I feel is an underrepresented perspective.