“Go home,” jeered bystanders at Siam as she was forced to strip off her clothes. Four armed police officers stood in front of her expectantly. Siam did not know what she had done. She had been enjoying the sun with her family on a beach in Nice. As far as the eye could see, half-naked men and women cavorted, but Siam had opted to dress more modestly, choosing to be fully clothed.
Siam had violated the “burkini ban,” a law instituted in France that prohibited Muslim women from covering themselves with burkinis, a type of religious garb, on the beach. Nearly 30 mayors called for the ban following a wave of terrorist attacks in France in the last year.
In an August survey conducted by the market research firm Ifop, 64 percent of French people supported the ban. The Mayor of Cannes called the swimsuit “the uniform of extreme Islamism.” Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy labeled the burkini a “provocation” that supported radical Islam. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls argued the burkini represented the “enslavement of women.”
“The burkini ban is so bizarre,” said Miriam David, feminist author and Professor of Education at University College London, in an interview with The Politic.
David disputed the characterization of the burkini ban as freeing for women. She continued, “These policemen that are pretty fully clothed wearing gun holsters and everything are making a woman undress in public. It must be the bizarrest statement of equality you could possibly have. That cannot be any form of gender equality.”
Central to the justification for the burkini ban was laïcité, a law ensuring that the government and public affairs of France are secular. In accordance with laïcité, a 2004 law banned all displays of religious symbols in schools. Stories soon emerged: a teacher chastising a Muslim girl for wearing a dress that was too long and therefore a religious symbol, or another teacher forcing a Muslim girl to remove her headscarf because it was “going to cause [her] problems.” In 2010, the French government passed a law banning niqabs and burqas. With the passage of each of these laws, the French government created a de facto dress code for Muslims.
The burkini ban is not the first time clothing has been restricted. Ruthann Robson, Professor of Law at the CUNY School of Law, explained, “the control of people through control of dress is longstanding. The sumptuary laws of the English empire and other empires sought to mark people by class, gender, religion, and nationality.”
In the U.S., Robson noted, clothing regulations were placed on slaves to identify them, and laws prohibited slave owners from giving enslaved people clothes. Women like Heather Prynne in The Scarlet Letter were forced to bear signs of shame on their clothing for the world to see.
Robson gave the example of an 1894 law case brought to a Pennsylvania court against nuns wearing religious garb in school. A dissenting judge described the nuns’ clothing as “strikingly unlike the dress of their sex” which served to “proclaim their church, their order, and their separation from the secular world.” Though that case was rejected, the Pennsylvania legislature later passed a law banning teachers from wearing religious attire in schools.
“Dress codes are a way of keeping women in their place,” said David. “The effect is very oppressive,” she continued. One hundred years before the burkini ban, swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested for wearing a one-piece swimsuit on the beach. In 1919, Puerto Rican Luisa Capetillo was jailed after being the first woman to wear pants publicly. After the two-piece swimsuit was introduced in the 1950s, the Pope condemned it, and the Italian government prohibited it, issuing fines for any infractions.
Even today, female students in schools are sent home and suspended for wearing shirts that reveal too much of their shoulders or dresses just centimeters too short.
Carrie J. Preston, Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Boston University said dress codes are a means of monitoring girls’ sexuality. Preston said, “The typical argument that certain clothes that young women wear will be distracting to young boys is of course incredibly misogynistic.”
Preston said these rules send the wrong signal to both boys and girls. For girls, these codes echo messages of shame about their bodies and sexuality. To combat these ideas, middle school girls across the U.S. have launched an online campaign named “#IAmMoreThanADistraction.” But this logic also sends boys a message that they cannot control themselves and suggests that they will not be able to learn if they have a glimpse of cleavage or short shorts. Preston explained, “It’s a vicious circle—we excuse the tendency to objectify women and then we say that you can’t help it.” This type of attitude, in turn, is part of a larger message that girls are to blame for seducing men.
More broadly, dress regulations tend to disproportionately affect traditionally marginalized groups. A 2005 study conducted by Edward Morris, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Kentucky, examined an underprivileged Texas middle school where a uniform dress code had newly been implemented. “Tuck in that shirt” was the most commonly used phrase by teachers, the study found. These rebukes were almost always directed towards young African American girls.
Morris noted in the study that the teachers seemed concerned with “improving the social skills of black girls” and wanted them to dress and conduct themselves in a more “ladylike” manner. By contrast, Morris wrote he never saw white students being disciplined for dress or manners, despite clear violations.
The message behind these dress corrections is one of conformity. “You’re supposed to conform and you’re suspect if you don’t conform. You must conform to be a part of us, ” Wiseman explained.
“You could look at gender that way as well,” Robson said, “you are distinguishing one group from another.” Robson described examples of dress codes that reiterate this point. Rules against sagging pants, she said, target males of color. Furthermore, dress codes in general assume gender norms for girls and boys. Rules requiring boys to wear pants and prohibiting them wearing skirts, for example, are based on these assumptions.
The burkini ban and laïcité also narrowly define what it means to be part of a group, or a nationality. As a secular country, France has instituted these laws as a means of requiring others to fit in. Robson explained that bans on religious garb are about “not allowing people to wear things that would evidence their religion and arguably make other people uncomfortable.”
Dress code enforcers, from school administrators to the French government, share an underlying attitude: “I know what’s best for you and in order for you to be a part of this culture you I’m not going to allow you to do something that’s important to you,” Wiseman said.
It is for this reason Wiseman believes students should have a say in how their dress codes are created. She said that often “there is a lack of empathy and a lack of understanding about how young people choose what they wear as a part of their identity of development.”
“So when you don’t have that understanding,” she continued, “it comes across as adults dominating people and saying you just have to do this because.”
Domination through clothes poses challenging questions of freedom of expression. France’s highest court recently overturned the burkini ban, finding that it “seriously and clearly illegally breached fundamental freedoms.” But the line distinguishing where these freedoms should extend is murky and continues to be debated.dre
A court in France says a woman should not be forced to strip off her religious garb, but a principal in the U.S. sends young girls home for wearing leggings. Who dictates what kinds of expression through clothing are acceptable? And how is acceptable defined? If anything, the constant attempts at controlling what groups wear elevates the power and potential threat of clothes that do not fit the norm—and of the people who wear them.