Tag Archives: France

Burkini, France, God, Man, Power

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Editors note: Just wanted to encourage you to open this posting. I think it’s one of Simone’s Best!

This summer the burkini (a bathing costume which covers all of a woman’s body except for the face) made a brief appearance on French beaches and an almost instant disappearance. The mayor of Cannes, quickly followed by mayors in other resort cities, simply banned it. He cited a city ordinance prohibiting swimming in street clothes.

This, of course, is about much more than safety measures. The French Prime Minister has called full body swim suits archaic, anachronistic and a symbol of the enslavement of women. The French aversion to any ostentatious religious fervor goes back to a law of 1905, itself based on principles first enunciated in the French Revolution, which established the separation of Church and State. The law forbids any display of religious symbols in public places. The French call this “laicity.”

So this is about what it means to be French.The French are a secular nation. Religion is to be confined to to the place of worship and is not to encroach on civic life. For instance, head coverings are not allowed outside the house. Unlike the United States which calls itself “One Nation under God” and where Presidents routinely call on God to bless America, the French are literal about separating the two realms. (The reaction against the burkini was, of course, exacerbated by the July 14 events in Nice when a religious fanatic simply mowed down families with children who were celebrating the holiday.)

In the 1970s nude Swedish women began to appear on the beaches of The Gambia in Africa. The local population was shocked and nudity was banned. The French are just as averse to full clothing when swimming. In both cases, local sensibilities must be taken into account.

The Koran, I am told, makes no mention of hijabs, niqabs or burkas. It simply enjoins women to dress modestly. When I lived in Lebanon which has a sizable Muslim population, women wore Western clothing and were not always veiled. It is only recently that Muslim men invoke the Sharia to force women to cover themselves completely.

In Iran before the revolution, women also wore western clothes. Now the mullahs have decreed that women who do not wear the hijab on the street must be arrested. I even notice that in current Iranian films women and even little girls are shown wearing shawls and head covering inside their own homes. Iranian men are not allowed to see womens’ hair, even in films.

It is supposedly the need to protect women against men’s lust that motivates this dress code but what about the 72 virgins promised to martyrs in Paradise? Who is protecting them against lust? Or are the laws different in Paradise? So it is only natural that the French people feel that this controlling behavior represents a threat to hard-won women’s equality rights and a regression to more primitive times when religions ruled the world.



And The Walls Came Tumbling Down

Castle and ramparts, medieval city. Carcassonne, France

Ever since the Bronze Age, people have banded together and erected barriers to protect themselves against invasion by dangerous “others.” This was especially true in Europe during the Middle Ages. Because of constant wars, dense population centers surrounded themselves with elaborate fortifications including walls, gates, observation towers and deep ditches. Some were built around castles. Others extended beyond citadels.

The Great Wall of China was erected for protection against the Mongols and other nomadic tribes. Hadrian’s Wall in northern England was meant to thwart barbarians and keep them from invading this outpost of the Roman Empire. These walls also served to collect customs fees.

Soon however, as cities expanded and flourished, the walls became an obstacle to commerce and contributed to isolation. They began to come down. Fortunately many have survived.

I have always been fascinated by the still existing walled towns and have tried to visit many of them in my travels.

Carcassonne, high on a hilltop in the center of France, is the largest former fortress in Europe. It is a medieval fortified town, restored in the 19th century. Its massive walls, dating from antiquity, encircle a gothic cathedral. There is also a castle complete with drawbridge. The view is superb everywhere you walk.

Saint Malo, a walled port city in Britany, was almost totally destroyed in 1944 by Americans. They believed a great number of Germans were hiding there (they weren’t). It too was completely rebuilt. You can walk on the cobbled streets of the ramparts and see the ocean on all sides. It is often grey and windy which adds to the overall somber effect. It is in Saint Malo that I have seen the highest and fastest tides in the world. Climbing to the top of the walls they seem to be propelled by giant forces.

Dubrovnik in Croatia was founded in the 7th century on a rocky island. Its thick creamy walls, turrets and towers are bathed in radiant sun. The vermillion rooftops, with views to the azure and glistening sea, give it the look of a jewel. You can walk and enjoy it for a long time.

Quebec City is the only walled city on the North American Continent. Its cobbled streets overlook the St. Lawrence seaway. A castle (Chateau Frontenac), cannons, churches and bell towers add to the fortress effect.

The Berlin Wall (1962-1989) was conceived as an anti- fascist bulwark meant to keep Western “fascists” from entering Eastern Germany and undermining its moral purity. Its real purpose, however, was to imprison the East Germans. It was to keep insiders inside.

It finally exploded from within in 1989, releasing all its prisoners. And the walls came tumbling down.