Bad Habits? France’s ‘Burkini ban’ in Historical Perspective

This article was written by Dr Carmen Mangion from Birkbeck’s Department of  History, Classics and Archaeology. The article was originally published on the History Workshop Online‘s blog.

The ‘burkini ban’ issued by 30 French beach towns at the end of July 2016 sparked a media frenzy. Town mayors saw the burkini, the full-body swimsuit favoured by some Muslim women as a means of maintaining modesty while enjoying the sea, as a symbol of Islamic extremism and a threat to ‘good morals and secularism’. France’s 1905 constitution separates Church and State, and embraces a laïcité (a secularism in public affairs which prohibits religious expression) meant to limit religion’s influence on its citizens though still allowing freedom of religion. It originated as a means of eliminating the influence of the Catholic Church.Following ministerial criticism, France’s top administrative court investigated the ‘burkini ban’, ruling in late August that it violated basic freedoms.

Nuns at the beach
Nuns at the beach (Facebook/Izzeddin Elzir)

Amidst this furore, Italian Imam Izzedin Elzir’s image of nuns on the beach in their religious habits triggered an international media response. The image, appearing across social media and in outlets as prominent as the New York Times, implied the hypocrisy of a ban targeting Muslims and ignoring Christians. The photos were ironic on two counts:

First, some French mayors were emphatic that nuns in habits were also forbidden on beaches.

Second, and more apposite to this blog post, both the media and ‘ordinary’ citizens seem to be unaware that the ‘nun’ on the streets of Paris (and elsewhere) once sparked a similar outrage.

The historical context was of course different (it always is), but the indignation and the drive to control women’s appearance was just as virulent. Such outrage was not limited to France, but as the ‘burkini ban’ was initiated by the French, it seems appropriate to begin with this bit of French history.

The French revolution of the 1790s, with its cry of liberté, égalité, fraternité was not such a good thing for Catholic nuns. The nun, in her religious habit, became a symbol of the Catholic Church’s role in upholding the inequities and injustices of the ruling classes within France. Catholic nuns, then fully habited, were visible on the streets of Paris as educators, nurses and providers of social welfare, and became targets of anti-clerical outrage. The republican political regime set French nuns ‘free’ from their lifelong vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and their religious habit. It closed convents and confiscated their property. Some members of religious communities weren’t so willing to be set free, however, and were imprisoned. They were told to remove their religious habits (made illegal in 1792) and instead wear secular garb. Nuns including the Carmelites of Compiègne and the Daughters of Charity of Arras were executed for refusing to take the oath of loyalty to the Constitution.

French citizens also made their umbrage against nuns known. One 1791 print representing revolutionary anticlericalism, La Discipline patriotique or le fanatisme corrige (‘The patriotic discipline or fanaticism corrected’), showed the market women of Paris’s les Halles disrobing and thrashing the religious fanaticism out of a group of nuns. Such disciplining of women’s bodies was both salicious and violent.

la_discipline_patriotique_ou_le_-_btv1b69446090

The patriotic discipline or Fanaticism corrected (La Discipline patriotique ou le fanatisme corrigée) (Image: BnF/Gallica)

This urge to control the religious ‘fanaticism’ of women and monitor their clothing choices was not only a French issue; it had earlier incarnations. The dissolution of the monasteries in England in the mid-sixteenth century also ‘freed’ nuns and monks from their vows — and their property. English women’s response to this was to form English convents in exile, many in France and Belgium. In the 1790s English nuns fled, often surreptitiously, back to England. But penal laws restricting Catholic practices were still in effect and English bishops initially discouraged nuns from wearing their religious habit. English citizens too showed their indignation for female religious life by throwing epithets and stones at nuns; the Salford house of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul was set alight in 1847. Similar events happened in the United States. Most notoriously the Ursuline convent in Charleston, South Carolina was burned down in the 1830s by anti-nun rioters. In the Netherlands, in Spain, in Belgium, in Germany and more recently in Eastern and Central Europe, nuns were also targeted. Women in religious clothing were (and are) easy targets of vitriol and violence.

So burkinied Muslim women and habited Catholic nuns have far more in common than one might think. The nun’s religious habit, like the burkini, has links to religious identity as counter to cultural norms. Critics say that women in burkinis challenge the French secular way of life. History shows that the habited nun also challenged both a republican version of Frenchness and also an English version of Englishness.

Within this context, the burkini furore illustrates two points.

First, it is yet another disappointing reminder that women’s bodies and appearances remain far too often more relevant (and newsworthy) than women’s intellects and voices. Clothing regulations are an excuse to control women and to divert attention from more substantive issues. They are a means of enforcing a societal version of femininity that doesn’t allow for difference. Women choosing to wear religious dress (or dress associated with religious affiliation) should not be stigmatised.

Second, by focusing on the burkini, we forget the more salient issue of figuring out how diverse people can live together peacefully. It is the social, economic and political factors that need attention: cultural inclusion, high unemployment and participation in civic life. Criminalising what women wear on the beach doesn’t even come close to addressing these issues.

Further Reading:

  • Carmen Mangion, ‘Avoiding “rash and Imprudent measures”: English Nuns in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1801’ in Communities, Culture and Identity: The English Convents in Exile, 1600-1800 edited by Caroline Bowden and James E. Kelly (Ashgate, 2013), pp. 247-63.
  • Gemma Betros, ‘Liberty, Citizenship and the Suppression of Female Religious Communities in France, 1789-90’, Women’s History Review, 18 (2009), 311–36
  • For a robust comparison of nineteenth-century American nativism to the politics of Islam see José Casanova, ‘The Politics of Nativism Islam in Europe, Catholicism in the United States’, Philosophy & Social Criticism, 38 (2012), 485–95. A short and accessible version of this essay can be found here.
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Patrick Modiano, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, is a paradox

Akane KawakamiThis post was contributed by Dr Akane Kawakami, Senior Lecturer in  20th and 21st-century French and francophone literature in Birkbeck’s Department of Cultures and Languages. It was originally published on The Washington PostDr Kawakami’s books include A Self-Conscious Art: Patrick Modiano’s Postmodern Fictions

Patrick Modiano, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in literature, is a paradox. He writes bestsellers but shuns the media. His novels sound autobiographical, yet his declared subject is a historical period that ended just before he was born. His style is clear and simple, but it masks complex time frames, unreal scenarios and a narrator who often seems to know little about the story he is in charge of. He is a household name in France but almost unknown outside his own country. This is one reason why the recipient of this year’s literature prize may come as something of a surprise to the world at large, if not to his faithful and numerous Francophone readers.

Even for those of us who have been reading and loving his books for several decades, this honor establishing him as a “grand man of letters” seems somehow not to fit the media-shy author. Can it really be that this recluse — famously inarticulate on the French literary program “Apostrophes” and always reluctant to give interviews — has been dragged into the limelight to be given the greatest literary accolade of all?

Modiano himself has always played down his own achievements, as well as the status of his chosen medium, the novel. In 1975, after four successful novels, Modiano — in a rare interview — claimed that the novel was an “anachronistic” genre that had ”slipped away” from public view. His heroes are known for slipping away, too; they’re shadowy, furtive figures modeled on himself (they tend to be tall, dark, shy and not good at interviews). In story­lines that are reminiscent of classic detective novels, his heroes set off on their searches into the past, trying to solve mysteries rooted in the period of the Occupation, Modiano’s avowed obsession.

Modiano_Missing PersonThe Occupation of France by the Nazis during World War II — along with the collaboration of many French nationals and the murder of French Jews — is a dirty pocket of French history that was not much discussed following the Allied victory. After Charles de Gaulle inaugurated the Fifth Republic, the general tendency was to stop talking about les années noires. It was only authors of a later generation — such as Modiano, whose guilt was inherited rather than personal — who proved able to explore this painful period. His first novel, about an anti-Semitic Jew who leads a colorful and surreal existence during the war, was published in 1968. Missing Person, published in 1978, is another highlight, about an amnesiac detective who goes on a hunt for his own identity during the Occupation. Honeymoon (1990), the story of a young Jewish woman who disappears in 1942, is also a gripping read.

Modiano’s novels are usually built around several time frames. They might start off in the 1980s, go back to the 1960s to evoke his youth and then suddenly shelve down into the 1940s to reveal a crucial link between a friend of his deceased parents and the woman he is dating in the present. Or the link will not be crucial; it will simply be a case of what might have been, the possibility that one ephemeral life that was extinguished during the Occupation might have brushed past another who has happened to survive.

In Dora Bruder (1997), Modiano gave up fiction and tried to re-create the real life of the heroine of Honeymoon, relating the few facts he had recovered about her movements in 1941 to his own wanderings through the Parisian streets as an adolescent in the 1960s, and to his walks in the 1990s. Gaps in his knowledge evoke the poignancy of the subject, as, in the end, Modiano has to concede that he still knows almost nothing about the girl, except that she was eventually arrested by the Gestapo and ended her days in Auschwitz.

Modiano tells all this in a limpid, almost classical prose that belies the ugliness of the events and facts. His writing is extremely readable, which is perhaps the reason for both his popularity in France and his relative lack of academic recognition (his novels are taught more in English-speaking universities than in French ones). Yet his clear writing eases the reader through instances of formal experimentation that would not be out of place in a Paul Auster novel: bewildering shifts in time, multiple appearances of “Patrick,” who may or may not be the author, and apparently real settings transformed into strange, hallucinatory spaces.

Light is something Modiano is good at describing, and many of the scenes in his novels are almost cinematic in their visual impact. Modiano co-wrote the screenplay of Lacombe, Lucien (1974), directed by Louis Malle, and has carried on to make more films, such as The Son of Gascogne (Pascal Aubier, 1995) and Bon Voyage (Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 2003).

His prose also achieves a difficult feat, which is to get French readers to face, time and time again, the unspeakable acts of betrayal and cowardice perpetuated during the Occupation. The detective novel framework, the clear style, the diffident narrators — all this makes it deceptively simple for readers to occupy the narrator’s seat in Modiano’s novels. The narrator of Missing Person introduces himself saying, “I am nothing. Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the cafe terrace.”

The joy of reading a Modiano novel is to slip into that silhouette, to make the journey through the decades of French history and then — sometimes, suddenly — experience all the horror of the past at the same time as the immunity conferred by its distance.

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