The veil worn by Muslim women in certain countries, either by desire or decree, has become a potent political symbol. It is after all, hard to miss. As the divisiveness between the Islamic and western worlds escalates, any woman in the West wearing a burqa (or niqab or its equivalent) is at least openly advertising her religion and at worst, putting a target on herself.
Freshly scarred from the terrorist attack in Nice on July 14th, where 86 people were killed and 434 injured, towns across the French Riviera banned the burqini on its beaches. Nice mayor Ange-Pierre Vivoni stated that such measures were necessary to “protect the population.”
It used to be that travelers would adhere to the adage “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Taking on (if temporarily) the customs of a country is both a way to learn and enjoy a different culture and is also a form of respect to the natives. But these days, boundaries are blurry and relationships, complicated. The increased movement of people around the globe has made the world a smaller place. Look at Dubai, as an example. Mere decades ago it was a relatively unknown spot on the Persian Gulf. Now it is a glamorous vacation destination for the likes of celebrities like Kim Kardashian who is known for revealing more than just a naked face. Although technically the law in the UAE prohibits behavior counter to Islam and requires modesty from everyone, it is the rare tourist who is punished for infractions. Bikinis are allowed on many beaches; concessions are made albeit perhaps more for the sake of lucrative tourism than to defend religious laws.
The burqa ban is confused and contradictory. Some liberal European politicians who have long fought for the right of free speech, movement and assembly are questioning a person’s right to wear clothing that covers more than would a bikini. Religion aside, many women may prefer coverage on a sunny beach if only to protect their skin from cancer. On the other hand, many liberal European politicians hesitate implementing certain anti-terrorist measures on the grounds it could interfere with an individual’s right to privacy. Still others might argue that allowing cultures to mix in public, for example on a sunny Mediterranean beach, would bolster relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.
And yet again, it may be the absence of clear, realistic and effective anti-terrorist policy and procedures that has frustrated citizens upset over clothing choices. They are angry at an extremist ideology that kills their compatriots in the name of Islam. They don’t differentiate between the enemy and someone who is associated with the religion. They may feel that the benign burqini is the only concrete thing they can fight against.
Ah, but is it benign? In Mosul in northern Iraq, a woman clad in a burqa took a gun out from under her garment and shot dead two ISIS commanders. ISIS and its ilk in countries across the Middle East have long declared that women be veiled. Women, and their fathers and brothers, have been executed for non-compliance. Yet in this instance it seems that the terrorists are taking a more pragmatic view in response to an incident whose irony can’t be missed. Women are now forbidden by ISIS to be veiled at security checkpoints in Mosul.
Ultimately, security should be concerned with threat. Beach cover-ups may well incite political vitriol and islamophobia amongst a population tired of terrorist attacks, but it is hard to see how a cover-up is a threat indicator (unless you are in Mosul).
The most important thing to consider when assessing potential terrorist or criminal threat is an individual’s intent. We all know that a person may have a weapon in their pocket but if they have no plans on using it, then it’s a no-threat decision. If only making that security determination were as easy as isolating a particular group for their fashion choices.