I read recently that Nadine Morano, the former French family minister, said publicly that she had seen a Muslim woman sitting on a French beach in a headscarf, a long sleeved shirt, and trousers, but that it was a French woman’s duty to wear a bikini on the beach because ‘when you choose to come to a country of secular laws like France, you have an obligation to respect our culture and the liberty of women. Or you go somewhere else.’ But this is a point which I have heard from a number of people and which, I have always thought, actually contradicts itself completely.
Firstly, Morano would be right to say that when you come to a country of secular laws you have an obligation to respect those laws (so long as they are not themselves oppressive – such as in the case of laws created in 1930’s Germany). I would also agree that you have an obligation to respect the liberty of women. But, for me, liberty comes down to choice.
When the campaign to legalise abortion was in full swing in various countries around the world, including in Britain, one of the key campaign slogans was ‘My body, my choice’. Another was ‘A woman’s right to choose’. But when abortion was eventually legalised, no one seriously suggested that this meant the all women had a duty to have an abortion! The point was that the choice had been made available for women to make for themselves. And yet, many people suggest that women have a duty to vote by virtue of the fact that many suffragettes gave their lives to win the right to do so. Well I full respect that the suffragettes put their lives on the line to win that right, but that is just the point, they did it to win a right, to win a choice, not to win an obligation. And, similarly, I don’t think any man should be allowed to tell his wife what she can and cannot wear (I think he can give his opinion but not to actually tell her. The choice must always be the woman’s). But if a woman chooses to wear a headscarf on a French beach, then that is her choice, no one else’s. To say that the choice she makes is contrary to liberty is ludicrous.
The point here is that, if liberty is about having the freedom to choose for yourself rather than having a decision forced upon you, then saying a woman cannot wear such things is no better than saying that she must wear them. The problem is not the item of clothing, the problem is that some (and I emphasise, only some) women who wear it are forced to and would not choose to. The problem is not the garment, but the force. So what is the solution to that problem? Banning a garment would stop the women who do not want to wear it from being forced to, but it would also force those women who do want to wear it, not to, or to wear something else instead. The force remains, it has merely been transferred to a different person. And as long as the force remains, the problem remains. Forcing someone to wear a bikini (if they don’t want to) is no better than forcing someone to wear a headscarf (if they don’t want to). Instead of banning the garment, ban the force! Support women to make the choice for themselves. It is their body. It is their choice. It is their right to choose.