Last week brought images of a woman on a beach in the south of France being asked by armed guards to either leave the beach or remove, yes remove, her over-shirt. She was dressed in leggings, headscarf and long shirt. Apparently her modest clothing was not secular enough to fit in with the new regulations on France’s beaches, where the burkini is banned (a full body swimsuit worn by some Muslim women).
I don’t get it
I just don’t get it. When I go to the beach, I am usually pretty much covered in clothes from head to toe, and no-one complains. Admittedly this is Scotland where there is almost always a stiff wind coming off the sea. If I venture near a beach in winter, I usually wear a long coat, jeans, boots and a hat. I have a scarf pulled up so that only the bridge of my nose and my eyes are showing. In fact, I don’t show any more skin than if I was wearing a burka.
Recently it’s actually been warm enough to wear a swimsuit. While the locals show off plenty of tender, white skin, visitors from sunnier climes, who don’t realise that 15 degrees Centigrade is a heat wave, have enjoyed the weak, northern sun in jeans, long shirts and jumpers and wide-brimmed hats. No-one has asked them to strip off.
Something has gone wrong if women are targeted for wanting to cover themselves up. The pressure to keep up with fashion and show off your body can be just as much of a restriction on women’s freedom as covering up for religious reasons. In the Highlands of Scotland, many women cover their heads to go to church and long skirts are de rigeur for the older generation. A look at photos of Victorian woman’s bathing attire will show something which resembles a baggier, lycra-free version of the burkini. If a woman feels more comfortable covered up, the decision should be left to her.
The secular laws in France are, whether or not that was the original intention, targeting Muslims and in particular, targeting women, themselves a more vulnerable group. In the UK, there is also a tendency to react to terrorist acts, or simply to the fact of being in contact with those from another culture and religion, by perceiving our Muslim neighbours as oppressive and potentially violent.
Last week I had a reminder that the heart of the Muslim religion is love. I watched a wonderful DVD called Bab’Aziz or The Prince who contemplated his soul. It is based around the ideas of Sufi mysticism, and is a visually beautiful film about a blind dervish and his granddaughter who wander through the desert looking for a gathering of dervishes. Their journey through the desert is a metaphor of the journey of the soul. It is demanding to watch, slow in places and then switching quickly to follow the stories of the different characters who are encountered on the way.
I cannot describe the effect that this film had on me, except to say that it left my soul panting for God as the deer pants for the water. At the end, I wanted to run to God, as a child runs to her Father, and tell Him that I wanted to give Him everything, except that my hands were too small to hold whatever that everything is. It will take a lifetime to scoop up small handfuls and offer it back to Him.
The film left me with the same feeling I have whenever I have the privilege of talking to an elderly friend of mine who is a Sufi. I recognise the hunger for God and the search for God in the other, and that lights the flame in my own heart. It seems to me that although, on the surface, there are many different traditions and ways of approaching God, underneath there is only one way and that is love, which is the hardest way of all. From Bab’Aziz:
The people of this world are like the three butterflies in front of a candle’s flame. The first one went closer and said, ‘I know about love’. The second one touched the flame lightly with his wings and said, ‘I know how love’s fire can burn.’ The third one threw himself into the heart of the flame and was consumed.