Thursday, August 25, 2016

What's Wrong With Banning Burkinis


If you didn't know my late aunt, Helena, you missed out on one of Brooklyn's originals.

She lived for 83 of her 88 years in three different apartments that were all within one block of each other in Brooklyn's blue-collar Sunset Park neighborhood.  She survived several bumpy cultural transitions as her beloved Sunset Park churned from European immigrant - Scandinavians, Irish, Poles - to immigrants from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic to, now, many more immigrants from China.

New York City's cultural neighborhoods can make outsiders feel like they're in another country.  Even blacks, for example, used to be an exceedingly rare sight across most of Sunset Park.  And when transitions take place, as one majority ethnicity moves out, and another one moves in, the adjustments made by the folks who stay through the transition can be daunting.

As Sunset Park changed so drastically over the years and many of the neighborhood's shops and stores shuttered for good, my aunt would take the bus down to a far more affluent district called Bay Ridge, where she could get the types of fresh produce, stylish clothing, and secure banking services that were lacking in Sunset Park.  Bay Ridge used to be virtually exclusively white, even into the 1990's, while most of the rest of New York City was reeling from white flight.  Its clannish ethnic makeup - consisting mostly of more affluent Jews, Greeks, Norwegians, Swedes, and Italians - combined with its better housing stock and easier access to a major subway line, helped keep Bay Ridge stable, even as places like Sunset Park languished.

Now, before I get myself into deep trouble, I'm not saying that the prevalence of white people means that a neighborhood isn't languishing.  It's more a matter of economics, at least in Brooklyn, because economics is a barometer of crime and other livability factors.  If most people in a particular neighborhood have lower-wage jobs, or no jobs at all, when times get tough, under-employment and unemployment have ways of driving out the people who can afford to get out.  And that's what happened in Sunset Park... but not nearly as much in Bay Ridge.  In fact, a lot of Sunset Park's more affluent residents "fled" to Bay Ridge as Sunset Park succumbed to the ravages of urban blight.

All that to say this:  That when it comes to distinctives, there are both cultural and economic factors that give any neighborhood its character.  And when you cross the freeway into Bay Ridge, you feel like you're in yet another world.  Compared to Sunset Park, Bay Ridge is clean, with tidy streets, well-maintained homes and apartment buildings, nicely-landscaped yards, and little litter floating about.

And the racism thing?  When I lived in Brooklyn after college, I believe I would swear in a court of law that there were more black people in Bay Ridge than in Sunset Park.  It's simply a nicer place to live, no matter your skin color, as long as you could afford the rent.

And housing costs in Bay Ridge are cheaper the closer you get to Sunset Park.  Makes sense, right?  So, back in the 1990's, when white people began transitioning out of northern Bay Ridge, the rents were attractive enough that a new ethnicity began to move in, quite to the surprise of many Brooklynnites.

Because they weren't black, or Chinese, or Puerto-Rican, or purple-polka-dots.

They were... Muslims.

Not exactly an obvious group to move into Bay Ridge, considering the neighborhood's established Jewish population.  Nevertheless, almost overnight, it seemed as though bearded Muslim men, and women dressed in burkas, were strolling around Leif Ericson Park, Bay Ridge Avenue, and the historic Alpine cinema.

For her part, Helena was most taken aback when she discovered groups of burka-clad women shopping along 86th Street, in the heart of Bay Ridge's bustling commercial district.

This was back before 9/11, remember, so it wasn't a fear of Muslims that had people like my aunt concerned.  It was the blatant sexism represented in the ability of men to wear pretty much whatever they wanted, while their womenfolk had to confine themselves to the bulky, dark burka.  In parts of America that are car-centric, and people don't walk as much as New Yorkers do, the visual impact of how various cultures present themselves in person on the streets may be immaterial.  Yet in New York, the way people dress makes a statement about who you are (or who you think you are) even if you're strolling down the block to where you parked your car.

My aunt considered herself to be an independent woman.  And she admired other independent women.  She voted for Hillary Clinton as New York State senator simply because Hillary is an accomplished woman, even though Helena, personally, couldn't stand her.

And yes, Helena had some racist tendencies, as we all do.  Yet they didn't control her, or drive her behavior, like they do other people.  Helena befriended the Puerto Rican and Dominican women who ran the beauty parlor at the end of her block.  Partly because they were enterprising women, and partly because theirs was just about the only reputable beauty parlor around.  Two of Helena's best friends in the neighborhood were Chinese and Indian nurses.  And when an independent-minded black woman applied to purchase a co-op apartment in Helena's building, Helena was pleased it was a woman being their first black homeowner, instead of a man.

Okay, so Helena was complicated.  But then again, aren't most of us?

But when she saw those burka-clad women on 86th Street in Bay Ridge, Helena was not pleased.  At all.

As she'd walk behind them, Helena would hiss just loud enough for them to hear her:  "Take that off!"

And she was serious.  "Take that off," Helena would impertinently insist.  "No man can make you wear that!"

You see - it wasn't the cultural thing of which Helena disapproved.  It was the fact that Muslim men say their women need to wear something like the burka so that they can remain religiously pure.  It was the men telling the women what to wear.  No man ever told Helena what to wear.  And certainly not for any religious purpose!

For their part, those Muslim women probably figured Helena was one of those New York nuts everybody's been warned about.  It's doubtful many of them ever took her seriously, or re-considered their loyalty to the burka.  If they had, and Helena learned about it, I'm sure she would have been ecstatic.

As it was, Helena herself took some perverse pleasure in making those Muslim women aware that at least one New York female did not approve of the subservience to male domination represented by the burka.

"Helena, you're gonna get shot," I'd warn her.  And frankly, I don't know how often she did that.  Besides, considering how noisy 86th Street can get on a busy Saturday, how many of those Muslim women actually heard her anyway?

Still, when I heard today that France's ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy is calling for the burkini to be banned in his country, the first thing I thought of was Helena, and what she hissed at those Muslim women in Bay Ridge.

But I don't think legally requiring Muslim women to abandon their religious garb is right, whether it's a burkini so Muslim women can swim in public, or a burka, or a similar garment.

Religious freedoms are an important component of a civil society that values human rights.  After all, the right to believe in the deity of one's choice represents an expression of not just the freedom of religion, but the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly; all conveniently collected for Americans by the Founding Fathers in the first article of our Bill of Rights.

And when it comes to burkas and other religious apparel, it could be argued that the Fourth Amendment, regarding a prohibition of unwarranted governmental searches and seizures, could come into play as well.

Of course, America isn't France (and for that, aren't we Americans truly grateful?), but when it comes to human rights, the same basic argument applies:  While many of us may consider certain religious garments to be indicative of male oppression of females, as long as the females tolerate the "optics" of oppression - however begrudgingly - should we be passing laws to stop it?

Sarkozy's stance is an increasingly popular one in overwhelmingly secular France, where a beach brawl earlier this month involving Muslims prompted three French cities to outlaw burkinis, believing the obviously religious garment is offensive to French citizens who object to the garment's implications.  Of course, the French have been understandably touchy recently when it comes to anything Islamic, considering the number of catastrophic terroristic attacks in their country perpetrated by Islamic militants.  But is banning an item of religious dress a proactive long-term solution?

In 2011, the French banned any facial covering that obscures most of one's face, a law aimed directly at burkas featuring veils that allowed only slits in their fabric so their wearers could see out of them.  French lawmakers tried to make their legislation non-religious, applying it to any garment that would cover any person's face if worn in public.  Ostensibly, the law would make it harder for bank robbers, for example, who might slip on a mask to avoid detection during their crime.  However, the French law has loopholes for popular carnivals, which pretty much voids the whole religious freedom thing, since many traditional European carnivals are religious in nature.

Besides, making it a law for Muslim women to not wear particular items of clothing doesn't change the mindset of the wearer, or of the person enforcing the religious rule.  All it does is harden hearts and create more conflict, when the whole point should be trying to educate women that in a free society, you shouldn't be ostracized (or killed) simply because you don't want to wear an article of clothing that is uncomfortable, bulky, or designed to "protect" one gender at the other gender's expense.

Indeed, if Muslim men are so lustful that they can't look at any other woman without thinking immoral thoughts, then who's the true weakling in Islam?  And maybe that's why some Muslim women wear their religion's prudish clothing - as a reminder to men that women aren't as weak a sex as their religion presumes!

Looking at it from that perspective, I wonder if my aunt Helena would have stopped hissing at Brooklyn's burka-clad women.  Maybe Helena could have instead complimented them on being brave enough to wear clothing we Westerners consider ridiculous so that their lust-prone men could be more faithful to their faith.

Helena was also a Sunday School teacher in evangelical churches for most of her life.  Perhaps she could have even gone further, inviting these burka-clad women to consider Jesus Christ, the One who died to free God's followers from religious legalism and petty rules that have nothing to do with our eternal destiny.

Meanwhile, the freedom we have to share our religious beliefs could be in jeopardy if we start cropping away other religious freedoms we all should enjoy (or merely tolerate).  Shucks, let's let the burka and the burkini openly represent to Muslims two distinct patterns of slavish devotion to rules that cannot change our hearts and make us right with our deity.

And let those of us who have found freedom in Christ be able to share His truth freely with them - and others.

My dearly-departed aunt Helena wouldn't have considered herself a street preacher.

But in a way, she kinda was.


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