My girlfriend, Maya[*], grew up in Algeria. She wears Vans covered with cats, her hair is cut short, she defines herself as agnostic — she is not immediately recognizable as part of France’s North African immigrant community. Yet, her origins shape her life here. Maya and I are both foreigners in Paris, but our experience of otherness is not the same. When I tell her how much I enjoy having an American accent in French, how many liberties I feel it allows me, she tells me how important it was that she scrub her voice of her own accent. She feels ill-at-ease in large groups of what she deems the Franco-Français, the French-French, who can never seem to remember that she eats pork and drinks wine. She tells me that because she is a “good” Arab, which is to say one who follows no religious restrictions, she is embraced by certain French people with a readiness she finds discomfiting, held up in their minds as a model of “integration,” a word I hear used far more often than “equality.”
Through her eyes, I struggle to understand the nuances of a racist society whose structures are completely different than my own. Recently, France’s Burkini bans — laws prohibiting women from wearing a modest wetsuit and headscarf on France’s beaches — have been the subject of fierce debate at nearly every social gathering I’ve attended. A few French people told me they supported the ban on the basis that it made them uncomfortable to see such overt displays of religion on a public beach. I felt they were once again using the excuse of laïcité — the French Republic’s founding principal of strict secularism — as a thin veil for their racism. But when Maya, who had been fiercely against banning the headscarf in France’s public schools, told me she supported these bans on the beach, I listened more closely.
Growing up, Maya could see the beach from the window of her bedroom in Algiers. It was only ten minutes away by car. Her mother had felt the first contractions of her first pregnancy on that beach. Even after winning its independence from France in 1962, Algeria retained an open, Western way of life. When Maya was young, headscarves were relatively rare, the garment of older or more rural women. But in the ’90s, Algeria plunged into a violent, decadelong civil war, one that introduced the world to the terrorist tactics we are all now familiar with: mass shootings of civilians in marketplaces and bombs in airports. The terrorist revolutionaries advocated a fundamental strain of Islam, Wahhabism, which they had imported from Saudi Arabia. Women began to adopt rigidly modest dress, sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of faith, most often as a response to growing social pressure. The revolutionaries presented religion as a way of restoring their culture from the decadent influence of the West, but this radical, politicized Islam was new to Algeria — even before the French colonization in the 1830s, Algerian women had dressed in a wide variety of ways, according to their region, their personal beliefs, and their age. The growing feminist movement in Algeria, where women had fought alongside men in the war for independence, now came abruptly to a halt.
In the early ’90s, Maya’s family still went to the beach often. There were men there who, one could sense, refused to bring their wives, men who glared in ways that might be uncomfortable; still, families like Maya’s remained in the majority. But as Maya’s body changed, so did the beach. The decade progressed, and the bearded men began to outnumber the women in bathing suits, until there were none left at all. By 1997, Maya’s beach became nothing more than a horizon for her, glimpsed from behind the protective bars of her fourth-floor window. Her father used his connections to get them access to the private beaches reserved for military personnel, but of these, there were only two, several hours away by car. More often, her parents took their three children on short vacations abroad — but for the rest of the four, long, scorching summer months, the beach was a place only her brother could go.
Maya grew up hearing stories — stories of how her parents had once stayed at a friend’s weekend home by the shore, drinking and smoking and eating, in the middle of Ramadan. Now, when her father drank wine, he wrapped the empty bottles in three huge newspapers, placed them in a plastic bag, the plastic bag in the regular trash, and drove it to a dump far away from their home.
“France’s municipal beaches are not free spaces,” Maya told me. “There are rules to follow. You can’t swim outside the buoys. You can’t be naked. There’s a correct way to dress, one that allows everybody to be comfortable. I would not want to have to one day explain to my child why the woman next to us thinks that her body is so impure it requires a Burkini.” These sentiments were similar to what several French friends had told me, but from Maya’s mouth, I understood it better.
“Imagine,” Maya continued, “what it’s like to come to France, to believe so strongly in this better world, where each person’s religion is kept contained to their private lives, where you don’t have to worry about your parents not coming home each time they go shopping, and to feel that the same nightmare could begin again, even here?” In Maya’s lifetime, Algeria’s neighbors underwent similar Islamic revolutions. In Egypt, in Syria, in Libya, in Tunisia — feminist movements were stopped in their tracks and replaced by a regressive fundamentalism.
“But do you really think,” I asked her, “that something similar could ever happen in France?”
“Well, no,” she said. “But … even if it’s not all of Europe. Even if it’s just one town, just one neighborhood, just one beach. I know that in today’s political climate, it isn’t best for me to say openly that I support these bans. But I do. It pains me to watch the political right take possession of this subject in a way that leaves the left no other option but to defend a regressive garment.”
Maya feels the way the debate has been framed leaves no room to critique the dangers of extremist Islam. As an American, I can neither shake my belief that religious freedoms should not be restricted, nor my belief that the French impose these rules out of xenophobia rather than out of concern for women’s rights. But I understand Maya’s point of view — a necessary and nuanced discussion of racism in this country is being polarized into two extremes, one that leaves the left and the larger, moderate Muslim community no choice but to align themselves with those who believe women must be hidden from sight.
“There are so many other conversations we could be having. Why not talk about how hard it is to get a job when you have an Arabic name? Why not talk about how public schools refuse to serve lunches that are Halal? Or how difficult they make it to learn Arabic? Or how France refuses the construction of new mosques? The headscarf is not one of the five fundaments of Islam. Those who insist on wearing it belong to a particular strain of the religion; one we need to allow ourselves to question. And nothing obliges these women to go to the beach. When they go in their Burkinis, it’s political. They’re demanding respect. And they didn’t respect me, when I wanted to swim in my bathing suit.”
In Maya’s ideal world, sections of France’s public, un-lifeguarded beaches would be reserved for those who wished to bathe in Burkinis, the same way they are for nudists. “And even more ideally,” she continued, “the nudist beaches and the Burkini beaches would be next to each other.”
[*] Her name has been changed.