French Feminists Will Defend the Burkini—But Not Shorts

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By Emma-Kate Symons | 3:55 pm, September 9, 2016
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Indignation and outrage is selective when it comes to defending women’s freedom of dress in France. After the international rush to the rescue of Burkini-wearers, French women donning shorts and/or sportswear, attacked as “whores” by a gang of men acting as “islamist morality police,” have attracted little solidarity from feminists and anti-racists.

Here’s what happened: For the second time in three months women have been victims of violent aggression in the French city of Toulon, allegedly because they were too scantily clad, in the minds of Muslim youth. On Sunday, a group of family cyclists and roller bladers made up of two couples, three children, and a family friend were set upon, and the adult males assaulted, by a gang of around 10 youths as they went past a public housing project.

The criminals, two of whom have since been arrested, started yelling out obscenities and saying that the women were “sluts” and “dirty whores” and “go on why don’t you just get naked,” according to local media and the Toulon prosecutor Bernard Marchal, who said the women’s “clothing” was behind the beating. Marchal also affirmed that the attacks were of a “sexual nature” designed to “provoke” the men, although later reports quoting one of the women in the group contradicted the idea that clothing drove the assault — she claimed to be wearing “sportsgear” not shorts. Some skeptics feared the affair was being whipped up by Marine Le Pen’s far right National Front.

Again, according to the prosecutor, when the women’s male companions tried to insist on respect they were brutally assaulted with one of the men sustaining serious injuries including fractures. He was hospitalized and has been put on a month’s sick leave. The children who witnessed the attack were said by police to be psychologically traumatized.

This is not the first such incident in Toulon: in June, teenage girl Maude Vallet posted furiously on Facebook ‘Bonjour I’m a slut’ after she claimed she was threatened, spat on and called a sale pute (dirty whore) on a bus by a group of five girls because she was wearing denim shorts. When the 18 year-old — who says she got no backing from other passengers on the bus — asked why she was being shamed as a prostitute even though men could wander around with naked torsos without any problem, one of her abusers replied: “Because you are a woman and you should respect yourself, dirty bitch.” Incensed, Toulon women organized a “Day of the Short” protest and demanded their rights to be free from harassment and assaults because of their standard city wear/beach town clothes.

But no elected officials turned up in support.

A minority of liberals say feminist groups, anti-racism associations like SOS Racisme, and the human rights defenders the world over who rallied around the Burkini should be stepping in.

Others question the reticence of the typically vociferous French Committee Against Islamophobia (CCIF), usually very quick to stand for women’s rights to dress how they wish without being punished for it. English-language commentators — habitually keen to excoriate France as misogynist and expose what militant Hijab campaigners claim is “institutionalized persecution” of Muslim women wearing heavy veils, burkinis, and burkas — have refrained from giving sanctimonious lessons in tolerance.

Socialist politician and author Celine Pina, one of the few liberal left feminists to publicly challenge rising extremist-driven harassment and assaults of women of all creeds and origins, condemned the gangsters as “Islamist virtue police.” She says the modesty brigades are “enforcing their norms though violence” in a wave of attacks on women’s liberty across France. Pina is particularly disturbed by the use of other women as auto-enforcers of the “purity and honor rules” to vilify fellow women as whores and bitches.

“These female guards so concerned about the modesty of women,” she writes. “[B]ut little about the chastity of their vocabulary have said everything: a man must be respected but a woman must respect herself.”

Ahmed Meguini, president of the militant secularist network LaicArt, and a committed ex-Muslim constantly trolled for his critical views, raised the question of “Sharia police” being behind the attacks.

“Muslims are always considered now in a very condescending way as victims — of stigmatization or conflation [with extremism] on the one hand or incapable of adapting to Western modernity on the other, which is pure relativism,” Meguini tells Heat Street. “So we get all indignant when some Salafists are required to respect equality between men and women [as with the Burkini] and we find excuses for those who will go out and beat up some innocent people over a pair of shorts!”

“For the moment everyone wants to believe that these [shorts attacks] are isolated acts…I declare that this is false and that these young men behave in this way because a large majority of the Muslim community approves of these acts as just. I understand the fear and denial but we have never been able to confront reality.”

Several centrist political figures who dispute that the shorts affairs are being manipulated by Marine Le Pen’s xenophobic far-right National Front have come forward. Center-right Les Republicains member of the French National Assembly and women’s rights defender Valerie Boyer tweeted angrily about the latest Toulon attack. Some members of the secular Printemps Republicain movement (Republican Spring) also denounced it.

It isn’t only shorts that offend what Pina says are increasingly empowered modesty armies. Skirts have long been in the firing line including in some French suburbs, where girls who don’t bow down to the strict codes regarding looser fitting pants and even veils are labeled sex workers or physically roughed up and beaten.

The renowned actress Isabelle Adjani, whose father was from Algeria, made a film in 2008 called ‘Skirt Day’ about the problems girls and women face in some French neighborhoods with surging religious extremism demanding they cover up or pay the price.

It appears the status of women in skirts and shorts has not improved in recent years.

Or as Pina writes: “The attacks send a clear political message: we are in control of the space, we are powerful and ready to exercise our power. You maintain your way of life at your risk and peril.”