French burkini ban: Women measuring up and measuring women up

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With the burkini ban in France, the schoolgirl porn website scandal in this country and the reaction to it from Melbourne's Kambyra College, last week was a "great week" for women, writes John Passant. 

Last week was a great week for women around the world.

To begin with, in France, seaside council mayors are banning women from wearing the burkini — a swimsuit designed for use by Muslim and other devout women. It looks much like a wetsuit.

The "socialist" prime minister, Manuel Valls, has supported the actions of the mayors. By Wednesday last week, ten women had been prosecuted. As more and more beachside mayors adopt this policy, more and more women will be arrested in the name of laïcité, or secularism.

Laïcité is just an excuse for targeting Muslim women and by extension all women.

It continues the deep Islamophobia that infects French society from the top down, and sees the fascist Front National gaining more and more support.  

Now, Germany’s conservatives are considering a ban on face veils in schools and when driving – basically a ban on the burqa, which is hardly ever seen in the country – in response to the rise of the far right Alternative for Germany.

In actions that raise memories of the 1930s, this "othering" identifies certain groups as somehow not part of mainstream society. It finds reflection in Australia, where the fearmongering about Islamic terrorism, the lie of "stopping the boats to save lives", and the ongoing genocide represented by the Intervention and theft of Aboriginal children, coupled with increasing economic uncertainty, have seen the resurrection and rapid regrowth of One Nation as a real political force.

The bans in more and more beachside resorts in France of the burkini marry the institutionalised oppression of women with a strong state driven Islamophobia. Unfortunately, the "Socialist" government there doesn’t understand that you can’t beat fascism by giving credence to its lies.

Nor, in Australia, can you beat back One Nation by fertilising its base with top down fear, racism and Islamophobia. Locking up asylum seeker women and girls on Nauru doesn’t challenge Hanson. It strengthens her message and appeal.

In France, the end result of the bipartisan fearmongering and lies is that in all likelihood the leader of the fascists, Marine Le Pen, will win enough Presidential first round votes to finish first or second and thus be in the run off for president against the conservative candidate. Even if, as appears likely, she doesn’t win the presidency, the parliamentary elections will see her party win big gains. The Socialists will be wiped out.  

What lessons can we learn from the ban on the burkini? Nothing shouts women’s liberation like the State telling women what they can and cannot wear. Indeed, in the name of laïcité, the French state since 2004 has stopped Muslim women and girls from wearing head coverings in public schools.

Of course, in Australia we’d never tell women and girls what to wear at the beach or at school. No, not ever.

Well, except we did from 1935 to 1961. There was policing of the bikini when it first appeared in 1946 and into the 60s. Some bikinis were too "skimpy" for the old men who legislated the restrictions and for the other old men who measured the bikinis.

Seriously. I will repeat that. Old men (and not so old men) measured women’s bikinis to check they were not "immodest".

In preparing this article, many of my female friends told me with stories of kneeling and having their skirt length checked at school. This is pandering to the view that it is women who provoke men. It is victim blaming. It is slut shaming. Nothing has changed.

In the 1980s and 1990s women began removing their bikini tops on some beaches in Australia and that too for a time was banned. It is still prohibited on many beaches. The beauty of the female body is a crime against "respectable" society because a woman’s personal freedom challenges her societal repression.

Just as measuring women’s clothes (or in other words, inspecting women’s bodies) in the past was an expression of and a big part of the repression of women, it remains so today. Controlling women’s bodies is a key element of social regulation in Australia and elsewhere in the capitalist world. Determining what women can and cannot wear is part of that. It is part of the process of women today being paid workers and unpaid child bearers, of women being paid employees and unpaid child rearers.

Some see the problem as patriarchy. It is true that for most of the short history of capitalism its economic and political leaders have been men. In capitalist society, until the 1960s, as a generalisation, men were the income earners and women looked after the home and the kids. If women had jobs, it was in work not normally in industries productive of surplus value, but rather in so-called caring or nurturing occupations like nursing, paid home care for the rich, service industries and the like.

With women taking the place of men in the factories during the Second World War, and then with the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s exploding onto the scene, the old work role models began to change to some extent and women entered the workforce in bigger and bigger numbers. 

And yet, as Australian socialist group Solidarity points out, today:

‘... women continue to suffer from unequal pay, gendered and fewer job opportunities, inadequate childcare, objectification and sexual violence.’  

This did not change under Julia Gillard, or Margaret Thatcher, or Angela Merkel. It will not change under Hillary Clinton. Women in charge of the capitalist state make no significance difference to the systemic drivers of the oppression of women.

Compare the priority the Australian state gives to combatting (almost always Islamic) terrorism compared to domestic violence. Perhaps three people have been killed by Islamic terrorists in Australia over the last decade or so. According to Destroy the Joint, 45 women have died this year at the hands of men — mostly their partners or former partners. It is all about priorities. The too real fear of too real male violence is another element in the societal control of women.

It is in the interests of the 1% to propagate ideas that women are naturally weaker than men, that they are less well equipped for certain jobs, that they are naturally nurturing, and that they exist as objects for men’s satisfaction. 

As Marx put it:

‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.’

This means we need more than what many see as the way forward, namely better education for men, especially young men. 

The Schoolgirl porn website scandal is the latest example of the societal denigration of women and the pervasive ideology of women as objects of and for men.

The porn site had photos of young women, often schoolgirls. None of the young women or girls had given their consent to having the nude or semi-nude photos published. In some cases, the women did not know they were being photographed. In other cases it was a selfie, or sometimes a photo a friend had taken. Seventy Australian schools were caught up in this site for Onanism, dehumanisation and the depiction of all woman as sluts, bitches and whores, just asking for it and deserving it.

The responses to the scandal reveal the reality that women are oppressed in capitalist society. "If you don’t want your photo shared publicly then don’t take it and don’t share it privately." 

This is not just the cry of the sexists, but of some feminists too.

Mia Freedman ends up her article on the issue by saying:

‘There is no such thing as a safe nude selfie. The only way to make sure a nude photo of you doesn’t appear online is to not take any.’

This might be good, practical, and sensible advice. If it is, it shows how fucked society is. However it does nothing to change the oppression of women. It accepts that oppression and finds ways to wiggle around it rather than smash it. It does not challenge the idea that women’s bodies are theirs, not the plaything of men.

Kambrya College in Berwick, south of Melbourne, was one of the schools involved. It adopted a similar but more overt "blame the victim" approach. Instead of disciplining the boys involved (and leaving aside the question of how in a society built in part on the oppression of women that would or could work) the school, to quote one mother of a girl there, slut shamed the girls. We are talking about year seven to year ten young women and girls, that is people aged between 13 and 16.

How did the school respond?

As that ABC reports says [IA emphasis]:

According to Ms Manning's post, the girls were told not to post photos of themselves online and to reject any requests from their boyfriends for "sexy selfies".

They were also instructed to check the length of their skirts and told "that anything that doesn't touch their knees or below by Monday morning would be deemed inappropriate".

"They were informed that this was to 'protect their integrity'," Ms Manning wrote.

"They were told the boys are distracted by their legs and that boys don't respect girls who wear short skirts.

"They feel their school has sexualised and demonised them, and compounded the problem by sending a strong message that it is them, the girls, who are responsible for the boys' behaviour, and that the boys are the victims here."

This is not an aberration. It is an expression of a sick society.

Violence, fear, denigration, slut shaming, sexualising and objectifying women, the big and growing gender pay gap, a lack of 24 hour free child care, the lack of significant state supported maternity leave, the inadequacy of retirement incomes for many women after many years in the workforce, the lack of unrestricted abortion rights, the slut shaming, the regulation of what women can and cannot wear, all are signs that the oppression of women is systemic and requires systemic solutions.

We must do better.

Read more by John Passant on his website En PassantYou can also follow John on Twitter @JohnPassant.

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