It’s been a few months since I last visited the beautiful and straight-out-of-a-postcard city of Nice in the picturesque French Riviera. While Paris maybe the world’s fashion capital, by now, most of us are aware of this French city Nice and the infamous incident of armed French policemen asking a woman to remove her burkini while on the beach there, because you know, it makes the area that much safer!
If one were to play devil’s advocate, France has been facing tough times on the security and terrorism fronts this year and perhaps that feeds into the overt hyperactivity of the men in uniform. That the highest administrative court of France eventually found fault with this action and banned the burkini ban, calling it, “a serious and manifestly illegal attack on fundamental freedoms,” is another story, another stark reality of a country that, much like the rest of the world, deals with multiple identities.
The incident sparked debates about women’s rights, white feminists, Islamophobia and cultural polarization, and left me feeling pulled in all these directions at once. Let me explain.
My memory of Nice is that of obvious beauty: pristine beaches, the famous Nicoise salad, big Galeries Lafayette stores and small seaside cafes. My memory of this region is also coloured distinctly by the subtle flavors of kebabs and couscous from small late night Middle-Eastern eateries, walking along the promenade at night without worry, and yes, wearing what I please to the beach.
When I saw pictures of the woman removing her burkini, as ordered by the policemen who stood beside her, my mind raced to that bright sunny day when I was there, not so long ago, sitting in a knee-length skirt and a long sleeved blouse, feeling a bit conscious and over-clothed beside my bikini-clad sister. She laughed at my apparent discomfort, reminding me, that I’m in the French Riviera, where everyone is too busy with the sun, sand and the beach to really worry about what one’s wearing. True to that, I looked around and saw faces of varying skin tones, lost in their worlds of thought, some returning smiles and some glued to the blue of the sea.
Cut to the picture of the burkini-clad lady and the policemen, and I worry if terror has changed it all. Will ‘what I wear’ now matter differently? Will my innocence be suspect based on how much I choose to cover or not?
If there is a vehement yes to that, then is looking under the burkini the best idea? According to international relations theory, polarised society is vulnerable to notions of The Security Dilemma, where conflicts become inevitable between two parties or states which, to begin with, would go to any extent to avoid them. Their actions, though, heighten threat perceptions and eventually lead to confrontation. When a state turns the barrel of the distrust gun onto its own citizens, it pushes the wedge of discrimination and threat deeper into its own skin and walks straight into the trap of this security dilemma.
It is then, to a large extent, left to the members of civil society and everyday residents like you and me to be aware of creeping phobias and misjudged prejudices. It becomes imperative for us to stand as a mirror and speak up against excesses.
Knee high clothes, ankle long skirts, plunging necklines, crop tops, sarees, bikinis and burkinis are easy stereotypes. The truth is, I am not the clothes I wear. And now, more than ever, I refuse to be boxed into a single cultural identity. I will not carry my innocence, my identity or my liberation on the long or short of my sleeve.
(Views expressed are personal)