This essay was originally written as a letter to the editor of La Gazette de Montpelier. Translated from the French by Nancy Holmstrom.
As a retired American historian, specialized in French civilization, and for the past 20 a resident at the Mediterranean costal town of Palavers-les-Flots, permit me to remind the mayors of our beach towns as well as the Prime Minister of the Republic, of a little historic fact forgotten by those who make an affair of state of modest women who wish to remain covered when they take their children bathing at the beach. This practice is nothing new. It was in almost identical dress that my grandmother and my aunts went bathing around 1900, without anyone being scandalized. (see the attached photo). On the contrary, in that period and up to the 1960s, the girl who wanted to present herself (except on nudist beaches) in a bikini risked being reprimanded by the police and given a ticket – as happened to a woman in a burkini yesterday at Cannes.
And while we’re on the subject of anachronisms, my duty as historian (albeit retired) obliges me to point out another less amusing one. While for seven months the French Air Force, (following behind the Americans) has been launching bombs over Syria, killing who knows know how many Syrian civilians, women, children and destroying their homes, no-one among the French political/media class seems to remember one big fact: As with the burkini, this is nothing new. Let us then recall that the Army of the Republic occupied Syria from 1920 to 1946 and that the French Air Force bombed Damascus not once but twice (ten thousand deaths in 1925, and more in 1945). in order to suppress the Syrian democrats and nationalists.
In 1945, right after the Liberation, de Gaulle tried to overthrow the Syrian Republic that the Free French had tolerated during the war. French bombers pounded the Syrian Parliament and demolished several Damascus neighborhoods, while the French Army machine-gunned thousands of demonstrators and arrested Parliamentarians and other elected officials. Finally, thanks to British intervention and the condemnation of France by the brand-new United Nations, French troops left Syria in 1946.
The so-called “scandal” of modest feminin beachwear, seen as a deliberate Islamist “provocation” and a threat to French security, continues to preoccupy the French politicians and media (and the foreign media remains astonished that such a detail of mores could rouse up a great historic nation) no-one seems to be upset about the real scandal: France (and the U.S.) are destroying Syria under the pretext of fighting “terrorism,” all the while arming these very terrorists by means of lucrative arms sales to the Wahabi Saudi Arabia, the principal supporter of DAESH (ISIS).
Why sell arms to your most dangerous and implacable adversaries when your are war against them? Why then insult the modesty and gratuitously humiliate the women of a great people known for their pride, a people that your government colonized and oppressed for a long time? Is this how you assures the security of a multi-ethnic Republic with a large Arab-Muslim population? Is this not acting the part of a pyromaniac firefighter? Is this not folly?
Back when the United States was mired down in Indochina (after taking over Vietnam from defeated France), the American historian Barbara Tuchman wrote The March of Folly: from the Trojan War to Vietnam in order to explain how the political and military elites of all epochs have persisted in military madness despite repeated defeat. The answer was: they “forget” (mentally suppress) the lessons of the past. So, for example, in order to mentally transform our peaceful but modest female fellow-citizens into a vanguard of terrorists exploited by occult foreign powers hostile to ou secular Republic, we must first forget the image of the bathing suits worn by our own modest grandmothers (Christians and Socialists alike) visible on the sepia-toned “1900” post cards on sale at Palavas and every other beach town. More seriously, in order for a government to persisting with a clean conscience in pursuing a devious and murderous, century-old divide-and-rule foreign policy, stirring up sectarian hatred and nourishing violence in Syria and terrorism in France, it must forget its heavy imperialist past and banish it from acceptable political discourse. Just as during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, it was taboo to mention the mass water boarding of Filipino prisoners during the U.S. invasion and occupation of 1898.
Some texts in English for those who are interested to know about French relationship with its “Muslim” population http://mondialisme.org/spip.php?rubrique54
nonsense To present the burkini as a “modest” piece of cloth is a cynical joke. If you are a woman today and are really modest (which is an hypocrite term for “pudor” for some reactionary moslems in France and elsewhere) you don’t go to a beach where were women show their breasts, their ass (with a string) and men show also most of their naked body. You stay home… or you go to your private swimming pool if you are rich enough to have one. Burkini was not a Coranic invention and is not even an old Muslim practice, so please let’s not present this new fashonable piece of cloth invented in Australia as the most important religious obligation for Muslim women today. No need to be a socalled historian to know that ! The burkini ban is obviously reactionary so we should denounce it because if feeds antimuslim racism, but the burkini is also a reactionary uniform used in France by a very tiny minority of women. A basic fact which this article “forgets” to convey to its readers…. And to compare the situation of women in the early 20th century in France to their situation today, especially invoking one’s quality as a “historian” is to ignore one century of women’s struggles in France and to want come back to the “good old France” dominated by the Catholic church, and its reactionary morals. Is it what you really want ? All women to be as “modest” (male dominated, enclosed in their homes, with no contraception and abortion rights, submitted to their husbands and fathers) as your grandma ? To make the link between the war in Syria and the burkini ban is just repeating Daesh propaganda or leftist propaganda which is on many points exacly the same. One can also be opposed, like I am, to selling arms and to any foreign intervention abroad for capitalist aims BUT one has to be honest about the concrete consequences of the principle of non intervention today: it means that one will let Daesh, Assad, Erdogan, Netanyahou, kings of Saudi Arabia, etc. kill their people or their neighbours and we will just be counting the dead. Unfortunately the Left has nothing to propose which would really help the people of the Middle and Far East. Denouncing foreign interventions is fine and even compulsory, BUT one has to admit that one has no feasible solution…. Terrorism in France is not nourrished by the State as this article pretends. Or in this case you should say as a distinguished “historian” that the Nazis were produced by the Weimar Republic and were not really responsible of their acts because of the incapacity of the German bourgeoisie to create a good Welfare state and stop unemployment and poverty. Nazis were responsible of their barbaric acts as well as French djihadists are responsible of murdering hundreds of children and adults. They have no excuse; no pseudo sociological explanation, for their acts. If barbaric acts would be an automatic consequence of murderous systems, then please explain me why African Americans never theorized bombings, slavery of women and mass murder of White people, etc… Was slavery not a barbaric, exploitive and murderous system ? African Americans looked for all sorts of political issues including armed struggle… So why do you wash your hands and the djihado-terrorist hands with such shameful considerations ? On these questions I can only advise you if you are interested to go the website mondialisme.org and then type “ni patrie ni frontières”. There are dozens of texts mainly in French but also in English about these matters and the situation of Muslims in France, etc.
Excellent letter ! I was Excellent letter ! I was shocked and saddened by the arrest of the woman in Nice surrounded by policemen who forced her to take off her garment! Also all the noise and commotion made about the “burkini” – which looks like a diving suit – by the gourvenment and by several mayors of French beach cities seems completely ridiculous!
Excellent letter! Great Excellent letter! Great point! I recommend a close proofread as there are several typos
Burkinis and Bombs Following the publication of my historical footnote, which sparked polemics in two languages, I would like to clarify my personal position on burkinis, hijabs, yarlmukes, tvillin and other manifestions of relgious orthodoxy : I hate them. Of Russian-Jewish origin, I was raised in the U.S. by parents and grand-parents who had fled Czarist Russia to escape from three plagues : anti-semitism, military service (27 years !) and above all Jewish orthodoxy with its Medieval customs, particularly forced marriages. I have thus legitimately inherited my viseral aversion to all outward signs of religious orthodoxy from my mother and and grand-mothers, who were agnostics, socialists and strongly feminist. They would have been horrified if they had lived to see post-modern orthodox Jewish women with shaved heads and wigs on the streets of Brooklyn, London and Tel Aviv. But in the case of the burkini, for me it was a question of defending the personal freedom of women who were excluded and persecuted for their beliefs. My attitude is summarized in this admirable sentence which Americans (mistakenly) attribute to Voltaire : « I hate what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it. » Concerning the wearing of distinctive clothing and headgear, Voltaire, in his English Letters, satirized French absolutism by describing the floor of the London Stock Exchange in which Quakers, with their black broad-brimed hats, Jews in their yarmulkes and ordinary Christian in three-cornered hats traded peacefully and honored each others’ word with their trust. This tolerance was based on Enlightenment liberalism (« laisser faire, laisser passer ») and capitalist freedom, today in obvious regression. Nonetheless, my article has been accused of « supporting ISIS ». In fact, I have for many years been a supporter of another Middle Eastern group, the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, which struggles against religious sectarianism. Religious sectarianism was imposed in Iraq by the U.S. occupation after the overthrow of secular dictator Saddam Hussein, the better to divide and rule Iraq. ISIS is a direct result of that blind imperialist policy. If you really want to fight ISIS, I strongly recommend you go to the website of these brave Iraqi women and help them : http://www.owfi.info/EN/ To return to the burkini, I have personal experience of the humiliation and rage of today’s Moslem women excluded from the beach, because in my youth there were still « exlusive » beaches around New York where Jews were not welcome. So I sympathise with the Moslem women who were interviewed about their feelings in this morning’s N. Y. Times http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/03/world/europe/burkini-ban-muslim-women.html Cordially, Richard