The Burkini Ban, and the Lexicon of Modern Journalists

Posted on December 8, 2016 by

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What is wrong with the burkini? What even is the burkini? In the post-9/11 world that exists today, there are often misconceptions about Islam, and in this case the way that Muslims dress. Despite these fallacies, recent incidents of terrorist acts, which have been committed by self-identifying Muslims, have fueled harsh anti-Islamic sentiment in some regions, which exacerbates a public reaction to Muslims who veil. The prohibition of the burkini swimsuit, and the wave of Islamophobia that followed, was amplified and exaggerated because of the way that the story was disseminated through media sources, specifically news media. Different religious groups and nationalities have interpreted and reacted to the burkini debate differently.

burkini

Mecca Laalaa, an Australian model, fashionably shows off a burkina swimsuit in 2007. (Los Angeles Times)

Many Westerners base their understanding of Islam from propaganda videos released by Al-Qaeda or ISIL, where men depicted wear seemingly intimidating headscarves, and women are apparently forced to cover their entire bodies. While these videos showcase traditional forms of dress among some Muslims, they are not by any means representative of the one billion or so Muslims that exist around the world.

As discussed in class, some Muslim women veil, or cover, their bodies and face to preserve a sense of “modesty”. For practicing Muslims, “modesty” is something that is both culturally valued and theologically instructed by the Qur’an (Yusuf Ali 33:59 & 24:31). It is important to note that it is not “required”, or otherwise punishable for a woman to not wear a veil. As discussed in class, what is specifically mentioned in the Qur’an is that the “bosom” must be covered, and that overall “modesty” is important to preserve. In other words, it is a woman’s choice to veil herself, or wear a burkini to the beach. This is where some misunderstanding in the media takes place. Some Muslim women decide not to veil their faces or their bodies, while still believing their actions satisfy Allah. The burkini was created to allow women who choose to maintain their “modesty” to be able to enjoy swimming, and other public summertime activities, in a way that makes them comfortable.

burqa-bans

Because this is such a culturally divisive topic, there has been an international debate about whether or not a ban on wearing a burkini in public should be legal. This debate all started in France, but the above infographic supplied by CNN illustrates the geographic locations in which the ban is either in-effect in some capacity, or was only proposed. Notice that a significant part of Europe and some of Africa have since adopted a ban of some sort. While there are many opinions about burkinis and veiling of faces, most arguments by journalists in the media fall into one of two distinct categories: supporting a ban, or protesting a ban. Individual sentiment about this issue is far too nuanced to accurately summarize into two groups, however for the purposes of this analysis, terminology used by the authors of media portrayals of the burkini very often falls into one or the other.

Sources that many Americans know and trust are Western, mainstream news sources, like The BBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN. It is common knowledge that some of these sources cover issues from a biased perspective, usually in regards to political coverage. Many Americans criticize these medias’ political favoritism, but what some fail to realize is that these sources cover international issues, like the burkini, in a way that is ethnocentric.

While authors of online articles, video segments, podcasts, and other forms of media typically cover issues in an objective way that doesn’t favor a particular argument over another, ethnocentrism is a form of bias and should be considered. For instance, CNN authored a piece on both the burqa and its swimsuit counterpart, the burkini. The internet article gave a detailed overview of the swimwear itself, and the debate surrounding it. When reading articles, words that stand out to Americans are words that correlate with core American values. “A symbol of ‘oppression’”, “ban”, “racism”, “disempowering”: these are all phrases used in the aforementioned article, and are ideas that are the antithesis of American values. Most Americans believe that the United States was formed on principles of equality, and freedom, and would feel uncomfortable with opposing ideas, like “oppression”, “ban”, or other words that suggest infringement of some kind. The lexicon of the article, combined with the overall tone, suggests that banning this type of clothing through the legal system is against these values, or that the perceived pressure that these women face among their like-minded peers to wear this type of clothing, is against the values of Western society.

Additionally, an article by The New York Times is also affected by this ethnocentrism: the article mentioned an opinion from “former French president Nicolas Sarkozy [that] called the [burkini] “provocation for the service of a project of radicalized political Islam’”, followed by a response from author J.K. Rowling, “So Sarkozy calls the burkini a ‘provocation.’ Whether women cover or uncover their bodies, seems we’re always, always ‘asking for it’”. The article also makes mention to secularism, which is also a core component of American political philosophy: the separation of Church and State. The author mentions two individuals on both sides of the burkini argument, thus making the article relatable to readers on both sides, rather than being slanted toward one point of view.

Text-based discussion of the burkini ban allows authors to describe the issue and arguments for or against it through the use of printed words. This is almost too obvious to mention, but an advantage to writing in print is that the reporting can be split up into sections, and certain words can be given emphasis, like using bolded text, larger font, or different colors. The CNN overview of the burkini employed section headers to separate different parts of the report, but these section headers typically contained ‘buzzwords’, or phrases that may be objectionable to readers, like the ones that were mentioned earlier.

Similarly, a New York Times article uses larger text to distinguish sections regarding other countries. That report gives readers an idea of how the burqa and burkini are interpreted across the world. Immediately following the name of the country, the author makes a quick conclusion of the country’s attitude toward the swimsuit: “West Africa … no one seems to notice or care what anyone wears”. “Germany. In anything-goes Berlin … the burkini is just another outfit”. The words used suggest to readers that the reactions of these countries are positive, and that it is the “correct” reaction. However, for countries that have banned burkinis, the author passes judgments like this: “Russia. The burkini has been banned or rebuked … as an affront to hygiene and local culture”. The word “affront”, by definition, means “open insult”, and furthermore, the word “insult” is to “be offensive to somebody”. These words have a very negative connotation to them, and cast a shadow on the Russian Federation for supporting these bans.

Many Western sources, like these (CBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times), incorporate a similar style of reporting, using words that cater to Western standards and values. This makes sense, because people of Western cultures prefer to consume news that matches their perspective. One might assume that the word “perspective” would describe political preferences and biases, but is rather a statement meant for general use. For example, someone who identifies as transgender would find it difficult to recognize the authority and authenticity of sources from socially traditional cultures, which may not treat LGBTQ issues with sensitivity. This is analogous to entire cultures, in the sense that Americans would not want to consume news from sources that do not recognize traditional Western values, like freedom and egalitarianism. This means that Western news sources must cater to their audience, and recognize those values. Otherwise, their audience wouldn’t read, watch, or listen to their productions, and the decision to report in this way therefore becomes be a business decision.

The majority of “news” articles, or objective reports, are generally unbiased, in other words don’t advocate for or against the wearing of burkinis and the insistence on “modesty” for Muslim women. However, editorial pieces typically favor one point of view versus another. That’s what makes them unique. Putting aside its overt bias, an article by staffers at The Jerusalem Post uses ethnocentric language to illustrate its argument. In fact, it is almost a perfect example of arguments discussed earlier, using lots of ‘buzzwords’ relating to explicitly understood values: “support for banning the burkini in France stems from the secular values of the country … [French] Prime Minister Manuel Valls says that [the burkini] is ‘not compatible with the values of France’”.

The editorial goes on to state its purpose: “This kind of toxic debate over women’s dress and Islam is in contrast … [to Israel’s] treatment of the large Islamic minority”. The authors of the opinion piece used the negative word “toxic” to describe the negative sentiment around the burkini, and then detailed the positives of their viewpoint, and how Israeli society is more tolerant and equalitarian because of how they treat, and have always treated, minorities within their borders. While everyone around the world does not necessarily recognize this opinion-heavy style of reporting as legitimate, the employment of ethnocentric terminology affects how readers interpret the issue that is being discussed.

While The Jerusalem Post editorial illustrates an Israeli perspective, what about opinions from the “Eastern” world? An editorial from Rachel Shabi, a reporter from the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera, discusses her point of view on the subject. Shabi brands French Prime Minister Manuel Valls comments as “denouncing the swimwear as symbolising the enslavement of women”. She refers to Valls’ comments, the same comments that you’ll remember from the aforementioned editorial, in a negative way. She used the word “denouncing”, which could easily be replaced by “describing”. The latter would convey the same action, more or less, in a less bias way.

Perhaps another comparison would be more illustrative. In the editorial from The Jerusalem Post, the authors used the word “secular” to describe the French rationale for the ban. In the Al Jazeera piece, the word “secular” was used, but in a different context: “…the ‘secular’ justification for and enforcement of the burkini ban”. Note how Shabi used quotations around the world “secular”. This illustrates her disillusionment with how the word “secular” was intended by the French. Use of the quotations conveys to audiences that there is some doubt or malicious ambiguity regarding the Western use of that word. Her interpretation of that word is different compared to her Western counterparts, because of her unique perspective as someone who is not part of the “Western world”.

After the events of September 11th, 2001, the Western world became suspicious of Muslims, and because of that, there are often misconceptions about Islam and the way that Muslims dress. Despite these myths, and Qur’anic evidence disproving common fears, there is still growing Islamophobia in some Western countries like France, and the prohibition of the burkini swimsuit was a consequence of that anti-Islamic sentiment. The burkini has influenced global sentiment about Islam because of the way the story was circulated through digital reporting.

 

Works Cited

Bianca Britton, “Why are the burqa and burkini being banned?”, CNN, 8/19/2016 (http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/19/europe/burqa-burkini-bans/index.html)

Dan Bilefsky, “France’s Burkini Debate Reverberates Around the World”, The New York Times, 8/31/2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/01/world/europe/burkini-france-us-germany-africa.html?_r=0)

Ian Lee, “Burkini not a problem on Israeli beaches”, CNN, 9/4/2016 (http://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2016/09/04/israel-burkini-bikini-lee-pkg.cnn)

Jean-Pierre Dubois, “Campaigner Says Burkini Ban Will Increase Segregation”, BBC News, 8/25/2016 (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37184835)

JPost Editorial Staff, “Israel’s ‘burkini’ values”, The Jerusalem Post, 8/23/2016 (http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Israels-burkini-values-464872)

Kim Willsher, “‘Burkini’ Day at French Swimming Pool Canceled After Outcry”, The Los Angeles Times, 8/10/2016 (http://www.latimes.com/world/europe/la-fg-france-burkini-controversy-20160810-snap-story.html)

Lillie Dremeaux, “‘The Way People Look at Us Has Changed’: Muslim Women on Life in Europe”, The New York Times, 9/2/2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/03/world/europe/burkini-ban-muslim-women.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FMuslim%20Veiling&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=10&pgtype=collection)

Lindsey Bever, “After Outcry, Georgia Lawmaker Abandons Bill That Would Have Banned Muslims from Wearing Veils”, The Washington Post, 11/18/2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/18/after-outcry-georgia-lawmaker-abandons-bill-that-would-have-banned-muslims-from-wearing-veils/?utm_term=.556e14de0c56#comments)

Mira Kamdar, “Beyond the Summer’s Burkini Debate”, The New York Times, 9/27/2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/27/opinion/beyond-the-summers-burkini-debate.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FMuslim%20Veiling&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=5&pgtype=collection&_r=0)

Rachel Shabi, “Burkini Ban: New Wave of French ‘Mission Civilisatrice’”, Aljazeera, 8/28/2016 (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/08/burkini-ban-wave-french-mission-civilatrice-160828110929500.html)

Russell Goldman, “What’s That You’re Wearing? A Guide to Muslim Veils”, The New York Times, 5/3/2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/04/world/what-in-the-world/burqa-hijab-abaya-chador.html)

ScarceMedia, “Mona Eltahawy on France’s Banning of Face Veils”, YouTube, 4/11/2011 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWJRam64dQY)

Unknown author, “Burkini Pool Party Promotes New Swimming Skills for New Canadians”, CBC News, 10/30/2016 (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/burkini-pool-party-1.3828060)

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Posted in: Islam