Look. I’m a bit of a Grinch and not the sort to be easily “uplifted”. Nonetheless, effective worldwide protest against the French ban on Muslim women’s bathing attire made me smile.
I felt happy. This, I decided, was a moment. The west had, somehow, woken up to its habit of seeing female Muslim bodies as territory to defend. Those images of uniformed men enforcing the state’s idea of “freedom” had given us an important understanding: that’s what we do to the entire Muslim world—well, save for the very rich bits of it. We fight for its “freedom” by cruelly seizing control of its bodies, its government, its oil.
I smiled! Then, I frowned again soon after. We were able to see this particular humanity and defend it but, we were only able to see and defend a tiny little part of it—the part that seemed “just like us”. Here were women we could identify with only because they were “just like us”; only because we had cast them as gals out for a day of leisure and bold fashion under a sun that shone on some of the world’s most glamorous beaches.
Don’t get me wrong. I am able to smile at the memory of so many people scoffing at the French police. But, as a diagnosed Grinch, there were two events that reminded me of our western reflex to only care for people who are “just like us”.
The first event was actually a non-event. Nothing happened. We did not become as outraged at the slaughter and starvation of Muslims in the middle-east as we were about the rights of Muslims on nice French beaches. It seemed to me that we in the west were outraged only to the point that we could defend a woman’s right to a wardrobe full of choices.
Motorcycle riding men in Queensland were facing precisely the same kind of moralising controls that women in the south of France were.
If we were truly moved as a mass to see Muslim humanity as more than that, we would be demanding an immediate change to foreign policy. We would be saying to Julie Bishop, “We must renegotiate our involvement in decades of middle-eastern conflict. I care to defend the rights of women to dress as they wish on nice French beaches as much as I care for the rights of all people to live and to eat.” And, yes. I know I sound like a bore. This is because I am a bore. But, I’m also bore with a point. Defence of the freedom to religious expression means nothing if we also permit military defence of its opposite in many Muslim nations.
The next event unfolded in Queensland. While the burkini news was still red hot last week, the Palaszczuk Government announced its intention to enforce another kind of clothing ban. It would become unlawful to wear the colours of motorcycle clubs in public for fear, said the government, that citizens would feel “intimidated” by this dress.
This, of course, is identical to one of the silly reasons advanced for the ban on religious attire; and one of the reasons we, very nobly, protest. “I’m not intimidated by difference!” we say, and we defend the rights of particular people to go about in whatever kind of outfit they prefer. Particular people. Women on nice beaches; people we can think of us “just like us”. Not people who are not “just like us”, such as men who, we suppose, enjoy the thrill of hot bitumen and the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Two Grinchy thumbs up to the people at Queensland’s Council for Civil Liberties who are defending the rights of free dress to these men. To the rest of us: two green thumbs right down. It was abundantly clear in news reports that motorcycle riding men in Queensland were facing precisely the same kind of moralising controls that women in the south of France were. But, we said nothing.
If we believe in “freedom”, we don’t get to choose whose freedom is most worth defending.
We who are in the habit of saying many things about liberty said zip on this occasion. And we said zip because these men are not “just like us”. They are likely to be poor. They are not likely to be on Facebook enthusiastically posting pictures of young burkini entrepreneurs.
Hey. I’m not going to pretend that I’d enjoy spending time with a bikie. I’m a Grinch, therefore, I really don’t enjoy spending time with anyone—not even brave women on beaches. But, approving of people or liking them isn’t the point of the thing we call freedom.
The point of the thing we call freedom is: it belongs to everyone; even to people who we don’t like and even to people who don’t like us. And, if that’s a bikie in Queensland or a cleric in Iraq, well, they’re still entitled to it.
If we believe in “freedom”, we don’t get to choose whose freedom is most worth defending. Freedom is for everyone, not only for people we can imagine as being “just like us”. If we tailor freedom and say that it belongs only to people we like, we are no better than police on a French beach who insist that “freedom” is being just like us.