The Burqini Dilemma
By Dr.Adis Duderija
University of Melbounre
What do we do when competing ethical systems with incommensurate ethical conceptualizations of the ‘good’/’reasonable’ and ethical priorities clash? The burqini issue is yet another in a series of other dilemmas that have emerged in the recent years in the context of immigrant Muslims’ presence in the West. Other examples of similar aporias include what to do with ‘radical’ imams, infiltration of ISIS fighters via refugee routes into Europe, Muslim male polygamy, the issue of niqab, female genital cutting, western nation-states foreign policy in relation to the Muslim majority world, shaking of hands with the opposite sex, establishment of Muslim arbitration tribunals to name but the most prominent. Both Muslims and non-Muslim disagree with each- other and within their respective communities as to what the real causes and solutions to these dilemmas are.
The possible answers can be approached from a number of angles: I.) security related, ii.) multi-cultural policy related (i.e.at the level of the nation state) , iii.) universal human rights norms related and iv.) normative (i.e. from the perspective of religious tradition itself) related.
The first insight is that we can find ‘reasonable’ arguments at all these levels to support both sides of the divide on the basis of evoking ‘national’ /cultural/common values, the idea of common citizenship, scriptural hermeneutics or that of personal liberty. That is why the conflicting answers to these and similar conundrums will not be going away any time soon.
Furthermore, it could be argued that while the debates regarding the first and second level ( i.e. security and multicultural policy ) are primarily, but not exclusively, situation specific and take place in the context of the nation state in question, the third and the fourth levels pertain to the realm of the universal injunctions/values however differently these might be conceptualized in terms of the actual outcomes.
My contribution to the debates concerns the third and the fourth levels. I must, however, admit that I do consider that nation-states have considerable power in dictating the terms of reference as long as they are in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ( UDHR) generally speaking. As a scholar of progressive Islam who has been dealing with (and publishing on) gender issues in Islam from a hermeneutical cum historical perspective for a decade or so I have come to a conclusion that (neo)-classical interpretations of Islam subscribe to an ethical system which is Aristotelian and androcentric in nature. Furthermore, in terms of its gender cosmologies it is strongly associated with the cultural cum customary outlook of the pre-modern societies in which the crucible of classical Islamic jurisprudence was forged and which it for many Muslims also canonized. This outlook pertains to the nature of male and female gender roles and norms such as the nature of male/female sexuality, the concept of modesty, the concept of family/male/tribal honour, the status and role of genders in public and private spheres, the concept of male guardianship over women and others.
Importantly, in the context of late modernity/ (post)-coloniality, changes in the ethico-moral compass among conservative-minded Muslims of various ideological viewpoints, including those living in the West, have taken place. These, in turn, have given rise to a novel phenomenon whereby selective and for all purposes un-principal appropriation of aspects of pre-modern Islamic gender cosmologies and discarding of others occurred. This process resulted in dislocation of the very rationale on which the actual practice of veiling was originally justified, namely the belief that the very presence of women in the public sphere is a major source of socio-moral chaos (fitna) that must be curtailed or minimized to the greatest extent possible. The recent return to various forms of veiling in many Muslim majority countries as well as among Muslim women living in the West is an example of this phenomenon. Hence, we are dealing with a distinct form of modern religiosity. The influence of Wahhabi Islam and its petrodollars has a lot to do with this phenomenon. Therefore, these various practices of (re-)veiling among western Muslim women, including the burqini, should be viewed from this conceptual lens. Indeed, the invention of the burqini was justified on the basis of it being a tool for Muslim women’s gaining of freedom to engage in an activity (swimming) that otherwise could not be ‘justified’ normatively. This reasoning, however, overlooks other elements of the tradition which would also preclude such an activity because of it taking place in the context of gender mixing or the visibility of body shapes /curves of women wearing the burqini. Indeed, I doubt very much that the traditionalist scholars in the bastions of traditionalism Sunnism or for that matter Shi’ism such as Deoband, Islamic institutions in Saudi Arabia, Qom or Al-Azhar would approve of the burqini on normative grounds. This does not mean that I personally do not welcome the burqini. I am merely pointing to it being a symbol of modern religiosity that is in many fundamental ways at odds with the established tradition.
As I argue in my forthcoming book titled the Imperatives of Progressive Islam, progressive Muslim scholars consider that the spirit or the objectives of the Islamic tradition, including those pertaining to gender norms and roles, are conceptually commensurate with that of the values underpinning the UDHR. Hence, I and many other feminist/progressive/secular/liberal Muslims, do not subscribe to the view that the various traditionally prevalent forms of veiling among Muslim women and the kind of gender cosmologies that underpin them are actually normative. We form this view on a basis of a different interpretational approach. In many ways these Muslims find the ethical system that underpin traditional gender cosmologies to be ethically highly problematic because it paints an ethically ugly view of women and men as a category.
In summary, ethical dilemmas surrounding the issues such as the burqini are emblematic of competing worldviews and ethical systems that cut across religious boundaries. As such, they must not be framed as pitting Muslims against non-Muslims. Such a view would only aid the agendas of Islamophobes and well as ISIS minded Muslims. Importantly, when viewed from a theoretical and ethical lens of classical Islam the burqini is a decidedly modern form of religiosity that does not sit comfortably with (neo)-traditional Islamic orthodoxy. Many Muslims, however, reject the assumptions behind traditional Islam’s gender ideologies as contrary to the very spirit and the objectives of the Islamic tradition. Hence, for them the wearing of the burqini is not considered a religious norm and many choose alternative style of dress, both on and off the beach, that they still view to be in accordance with principles of the Qur’anically mandated concept of modesty.