Burkini Bans, Cultural Assimilation Policies, and National Identity

In recent weeks, beachgoers along the French Riviera have witnessed the unusual site of fully uniformed police officers, some complete with flak jackets, walking on crowded sandy beaches among speedos and thong bikinis, handing out $43 citations to people wearing too much clothing.

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Over two hundred years ago, the French Revolution championed the poor, downtrodden, and underclass.  It was a landmark moment in the development of civil rights and democracy in Europe.  In 1903, these words were engraved on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to the US, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”   These sentiments have their limits.  Two years later, France adopted a policy of religious freedom and the promotion of secularism.  The ultimate goal was to mold French society, and all of its citizens, into a homogeneous culture, regardless of ethnic or religious backgrounds.  Today, these policies have reared their ugly head in the form of bans on traditional Muslim clothing.  Ironically, the new law reads like a religious edict, “Access to beaches and for swimming is banned to any person wearing improper clothes that are not respectful of accepted customs and secularism.”

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These policies are, of course, prejudiced, designed to stigmatize certain ethnic groups as second-class citizens.  They attempt to define what it means to be French—and to be not-French.

American reaction has been tepid, torn between libertarian ideals and anti-Muslim sentiment.  As of now, it seems unlikely the US will follow France’s path.  Nevertheless, the US does have a long history of similar controversies.  Battles over discriminatory dress codes are regular in public school settings involving youth.  Examples include bans on dreadlocks, cornrow, and Afro hair styles, feathers on graduation caps, and facial hair.  As with the burkini ban, there have been the usual appeals to hygiene and distractions as rationale for the bans.  The US also has a history of nationwide policies designed to mold the nation along specific ethnic and religious lines.  (See this blog post about past US immigration policy.)  Here are some more significant examples of cultural assimilation policies targeting Native Americans:

  • From the late 1800s thru the 1970s, the US’s official policy toward Native Americans was assimilation, to “kill the Indian, save the man”. Throughout this period, hundreds of thousands of Native children were removed from their homes and sent to far-off boarding schools, where their traditional long hair was cut off, their traditional clothing and language was banned, and often they were given new “Christian” names.  Even on reservations, Native religious ceremonies were banned until 1978.

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  • In the 1950s, the US began implementing “termination”, a policy that abolished old treaties and banned the official status of entire Native tribes (much like Turkey refuses to acknowledge the existence of Kurds).
  • As recently as the 1970s, up to one-third of Native children were removed from their homes and sent to group homes or foster homes with white parents. (At the same time, up to 25% of Native women were sterilized, often without their consent, dropping the Native fertility rate in the US from 3.3 to 1.3 children per woman.)

Like Muslims in France, these measures were meant to “Americanize” Native Americans, to repress their language and culture and to remold them into the larger ambient culture.

The operative question is whether a nation defines itself as a homogenous or multi-ethnic society.  The candidacy of Donald Trump poses this question to the Republican Party.  While the US is saturated with reminders of white supremacy and celebrations of ethnic cleansing, US law, at least on paper, embraces respect for different religions and ethnicities.  When the French diplomat, Alexis de Tocqueville, published Democracy in America in 1835, he warned that democracies risk falling into a tyranny of the majority.  Given that 64% of French people support the burkini ban, it seems that tyranny has arrived on the French Riviera.  The victims, this time, are traditional Muslim women.

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