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First let’s get some things straight. I am an atheist. I deeply believe that all religious belief is misguided and false. I understand the psychological reasons for such beliefs, their sociological, anthropological and political meaning. This does not make them true in my view. I also view most expressions of religious beliefs, especially as regards dress and diet, as personal preferences, not otherwordly imperatives.
However, I am not Richard Dawkins and I will not try and convince you of the error of your ways (not in this post anyway). What I want to do here is to discuss the burkini ban.
I think French cities that banned the burkini have not expressed well their desire to protect the values of the Republic. A ban was not a very good idea, plus it was sloppily defended in court.
Yet I dislike the burkini and similar rules that affect women. Why do I dislike them?
I believe that things like dress codes and acceptance of religious based preferences are leaking out of the religious domain into general culture creating an environment of self censorship that threatens the secular basis of western society.
Let me try and explain this. In our effort not to offend and accommodate other’s preferences we refrain from doing certain things. This is only normal in polite society. When I have friends who do not eat pork, I will serve something else. When I am dining with vegans I will keep the chicken nuggets safe in the freezer.
Should I also advise my daughters to dress discreetly in the tube so as not to ‘offend’? Should I encourage my supermarket to stock only halal meat to ease complexity in supply chains?
Of course not, you will say. This is silly scaremongering by the right wing tabloids. No one is going to force us to eat halal chickens or avoid miniskirts in the tube. Alright, I agree.
But the idea of the burkini still makes me uncomfortable. Why do women wear it? OK, anyone can wear whatever they want on the beach. Sure. But why this? Is it an expression of religious belief? An outward expression of religion is contrary to the constitution in France. As such the burkini is like the burka or massive crosses on the chest and would be banned in public places.
If it is not an expression of belief why do women chose to wear it? Is it to be modest? What does that mean? Does it mean not to excite the men? In that case it is a form of self censorship that is demeaning for women.
Should pretty girls dress modestly so that lonely young boys do not get impure thoughts and need a change of sheets in the morning? We do not give a damn what the boys do or think, is the answer.
But giving a coating of religion to the self censorship makes such capitulation somehow defensible? I think not.
I think a healthy secular modern society needs to confront preferences even when they come dressed up as religion. The burkini ban may be a rough way to start a discussion, but it’s a start.