Thursday, 13 August 2009

Too much information - You have been warned

The One Thing I hated about France...

I lived there for five years, but never went to the swimming pool. Well I did go there twice, but was refused entry. Why? Because I wanted to wear cycling shorts (clean, bought for the purpose of swimming only) rather than the glorified underwear that passes for swimwear. I even offered to buy another clean, brand new pair, and leave it at the swimming pool, so they would know it was only used there, but of course, that wouldn't be practical, if everyone did it... so they wouldn't let me.

In a hot climate, it's understandable that they didn't want people wearing the same shorts in the pool that they had worn all day. Maybe they didn't want the homeless using the pool as a bathroom. (Another argument for another day, I think.) But the rule they apply is far too general and officiously applied, and results in cases like this. It was only a matter of time before an Islamic woman would demand her right to use public amenities wearing a swimsuit that would allow her privacy and personal integrity in line with her religious beliefs.

In a country where identity is so closely linked with sexual identity, it is not surprising that Sarkozy believes that to hide women behind veils is a denial of their individuality. "In a major policy speech that month, President Nicolas Sarkozy said the burka - a garment covering women from head to toe - reduced them to servitude and undermined their dignity.
"We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity," Mr Sarkozy told a special session of parliament in Versailles.

Certainly, a burka may be imposed by others, but imposed nakedness is not the solution! Surely if we want women to be included in social life, it would be really good for them to be able to make use of public amenities like swimming pools, (especially as a way to mix with other mothers with small children) without having to deny their personal modesty or their religious beliefs!

That will take a long time to change... In the meantime, may we not choose to keep private any parts of our bodies which we choose to reserve for intimate relationships? The French rule is enforced nakedness - in my view, a breach of human dignity and social exclusion on the basis of religion, ethnicity and hirsuteness!

Since I came back from France, I've been wearing an adult-sized sunsuit to the pool, usually over the top of an ordinary swimsuit. For sure, people still stare, but they are staring at the tellytubby suit, not me. I choose when I want to be different, where I want to draw the line between fitting in and challenging cultural expectations. I choose when I want to look sexy and when I want to be relaxed and comfortable. Isn't that the Freedom the French should be offering to the world?Liberty, Egality, Fraternity ... Hmm.

P.S. There is a real fear of Islam in France. I have a hunch that the fear of the Burka is a symbolic one, because it is so visible. Many French women will find freedom in the modesty and respect of Islamic practice; if Sarkozy hopes to minimise the influence of Islam in France, attacking some of Islam's more liberating qualities will not be the way to go about it. Making sure that Women get every opportunity to be included in and participate in society, and rise to the top as Muslims, and raise their children as successful and responsible citizens, will be one way of ensuring that the Islam that prevails for future generations in the West is benign, rather than hostile.

P.P.S. Alan in Belfast sent me this, which serves to remind me that men, as well as women, may be uncomfortable with enforced near-nudity.