Indraswari , Kuala Lumpur | Wed, 09/02/2009 10:20 AM | Opinion
On Aug. 13, 2009, this paper ran the story “French pool bars Muslim woman for ‘burquini’ suit”, about a woman identified only as Carole – a 35-year-old convert to Islam – who complained of religious discrimination after trying to go swimming in a “burquini”, a full-body swimsuit, in the town of Emerainville, southeast of Paris.
Officials said they had banned the woman from wearing the Islam-friendly suit at a local pool because of France’s hygiene standards – not out of hostility toward overtly Muslim garb.
Despite the official statement, it is hard not to separate the case from its religious aspects, as Islamic religious attire has long been a matter of concern in France.
In 2004, lawmakers issued a ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves at public schools in France, as well as other religious attire such as Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses in public classrooms.
In other Western countries, too, Muslim women’s headscarves have ignited debate. This also happened in Indonesia – a predominantly Muslim society – in the 1980s, when the headscarf or jilbab was also banned at public schools. This also happened in the workplace, leading to Muslim women with headscarves encountering difficulties in finding jobs at government and private institutions.
Suzanne Brenner, who did research on veiling in Yogyakarta and Surakarta, said that in the early 1980s, Javanese Muslim women who wore headscarves remained a distinct minority of the population (American Ethnologist, 1996, 23(4):673-697).
While Indonesia and France are different in many respects, in terms of the issue of Muslim women’s headscarves, what’s happening in France today has certain similarities to what happened in Indonesia in the 1980s – as Brenner suggests – that the ban on veiling in public schools, for example, suggests that the state may have linked veiling with forms of Islam that it deemed threatening.
In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy backs the move to ban religious attire at public schools, and was quoted saying that such garb makes women prisoners. Emerainville Mayor Alan Kelyor, meanwhile, said, “We are going back in civilization,” when referring to the headscarf issue.
Indonesia today is different from that of the 1980s, as Muslim women wearing headscarves have now become a familiar sight. Nonetheless, in some cases it is forced upon them. I refer particularly to some regions within the country that impose sharia-inspired bylaws (Perda) that require women to wear headscarves when in public. The implementation of the laws also includes raids targeting women who do not obey the rule.
From a feminist point of view, what’s happening in France and Indonesia are substantially the same. It is about the patriarchal states ruling on women’s behavior. In both cases, the women’s voice is hardly heard, their interests are poorly accommodated.
Those who ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves in the name of secularization are no better than those who force women to wear headscarves in the name of religion.
These cases also indicate that women’s bodies have long been the battlefield for diverse ideologies. In France, it is about the secularization that is supposed to be upheld in public life before religion, while in Indonesia it is about religion to be implemented in public life.
To my knowledge, it is rarely the case that men’s bodies become the battlefield of ideologies as those of women’s.
While there is religious attire for men too, they do not become the center of attention.
While culture and religion may influence one’s decision to choose attire that is considered “appropriate”, women should be free to decide what is best for them and not be discriminated against based on their physical performance.
The writer is an Indonesian visiting senior lecturer at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.