A few weeks ago I saw some footage of a Muslim woman being confronted by the police on the beach for wearing a “burkini.” It was the first I’d heard of the situation. I’ve always known France had a problem with religious expression. I had a French teacher a couple years ago (originally from Algeria) who moved to the UK for the purpose of being able to wear her headscarf freely. Upon arriving, she was astonished to find so many women dressed freely – ranging from niqabs to burkas to hijab and shalwar kameez. It was a surprise to know that though France and Britain were close geographically, there was and still is a distinct difference between the values of both countries. France’s nationalism appears to supersede its claim of liberty, it’s Western ideal as to what a French person should look like is not open to interpretation, to the point where it is enshrined in the law. Whereas, in Britain – freedom of expression literally heads all other freedoms. So although people may argue that being there is an aesthetic associated with Britishness (cc: fair/white, straight hair, fluent in English etc.), this is not an ideology that is enacted upon by public institutions like it was enacted upon by the police in Cannes.
It is in light of this Burkini ban that the value of freedom has come to the forefront. Thus it was great to watch and join Britons of all races/religions come together at the French embassy in Knightsbridge to show solidarity with Muslim women fighting for the right to wear what they want. Both my friend and I believed it was important to support this demonstration to send a message to our European neighbours that such discrimination was unacceptable.
We arrived at the protest slightly late so it was pretty much in full force when we got there. Whilst standing, we encountered many related campaigns promoting their ideologies: including Stand Up To Racism (which we later joined) and the Socialist Workers party. I’m not sure whether it was the time we arrived or just the sight of us two that drew people in but we got a lot of attention. Me being black, with a short sleeved top and hair exposed contrasted my friend who is Asian and wearing a hijab with loose fitting clothes. Yet here we were, coming as a pair in solidarity for the cause. As we chanted and took pictures and spoke to different people, we found ourselves being interviewed by different journalists for different publications asking us our motives for being there. We spoke to them all about the need for solidarity amongst different types of people in order to fight injustice.
Ironically, due to advanced planning, the protest ended up falling on the day after the Burkini ban was lifted. Nonetheless, it was a great consolidation to know that so many people supported the decision that the Burkini ban be lifted. It’s an infringement of human rights to not be able to express yourself in the manner you feel comfortable so there should not have been a ban in the first place. The fact that campaigners could organise peacefully and relay that message appropriately made the protest all the more effective despite its quick finish.
I’m ecstatic that I was able to learn so much from my first protest. The atmosphere is nothing like I could ever describe. It was safe and enlightening but also humbling to know the concept of freedom to wear what you want, how you want, is apparent in both the Muslim and non-Muslim community alike. It is something I will never forget.