Burkinis, Ghazala Khan and the overlooked issue of female religious free choice

You should by now be familiar with the burkini brouhaha, and French officials' (all of them male, as far as I can tell) unconvincing claims that they're acting in the public good by trying to help liberate Muslim women from Muslim male-imposed dictates about allowable female beachwear.

Frankly, I think its a ridiculous overreaction to the very real problem of Islamist terrorism that has France on edge and desperate to find a successful strategy to assimilate (or at least pacify) it's growing Muslim population.

It has made for some strange bedfellows, though. Many journalists who are normally harshly critical -- and rightly so -- of the horrible treatment of women in some Muslim-majority nations have opposed the burkini bans put in place by several French beach towns, and backed by Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

Journalistically, this issue underscores the complexity of balancing respect for religious tradition -- or religious freedom -- in an age of Western secularism. Put another way, as the French seem to be doing, it's about preserving local social norms (scanty female beach wear) in an age of globalized (Muslim) population movements.

These overlapping complexities can be downright confusing for journalists unschooled in the importance of religious traditions to individual and group identity. At the same time they're what, for me, make the religion beat so intellectually compelling.

The burkini controversy is one current example of this complexity. Click here to see previous GetReligion posts on this issue.

Here's another: Remember the Khans, the Muslim couple who were such a media hit at the Cleveland Democratic convention when the father, Khazr, spoke of his son killed fighting on behalf of the U.S. military in Iraq?

In his speech, Kahzr also went after Donald Trump. The Republican presidential candidate responded by intimating that Ghazala Khan, the mother, remained quiet as her husband spoke because as a Muslim woman she was expected to stay silent. (She later said she did not speak at the convention because she feared becoming too emotional.)

Liberal and conservative media folk were quick to chastise Trump for being insensitive to a family's loss and to all who have died fighting for the U.S. -- and for tossing more red meat to those Americans who support him primarily because of his consistent anti-Muslim rhetoric.

However, largely lost in this unholy political episode was mention that some women -- Muslim and otherwise -- strongly believe that their faith requires them to act and dress ultra-modestly in public, and so willingly and even happily do so.

One commentator who did pick up on this was Rabbi Avi Shafran, national spokesperson for Agudath Israel of America, which is a Haredi Orthodox Jewish movement.

As such, Shafran, is a must-know source for journalists writing about the Orthodox Jewish religious right (as he's been for me for decades).

What sets Shafran apart, however, is that, addition to his day job, he also writes columns for such famously liberal Jewish and Israeli publications as The Forward and Haaretz. Likewise, he also regularly publishes at Hamodia, a Haredi news site.

Writing in Hamodia, he addressed the issue of willing modesty in relation to Ghazala Khan. He said:

To be sure, there are sizable parts of the Islamic world where women are in fact cruelly oppressed, where physical abuse, forced marriages and “honor killings” are unremarkable. But what Mr. Trump was demeaning was the very concept of different roles for men and for women, the thought that a woman might, as a matter of moral principle, wish to avoid being the focus of a public gathering. He was insinuating, in other words, that a traditional idea of modesty is somehow sinister.
Islam, though some Muslims may chafe at the observation, borrowed many attitudes and observances from the Jewish mesorah [religious tradition]. Islam’s monotheism and avoidance of graven images, its insistence on circumcision, its requirement for prayer with a quorum and facing a particular direction, its practice of fasting, all point to the religion’s founder’s familiarity with the Jews of his time. As does that faith’s concept of tznius, [modesty]  even if, like some of its other borrowings, it might have been taken to an unnecessarily extreme level.
I don’t know the Khans’ level of Islamic observance, but Mrs. Khan wore a hijab as she stood next to her husband at the convention podium. So it is certainly plausible that her decision to not speak in that very public venue may have been, at least to a degree, informed by a tznius concern.
A concern that the plethora of pundits chose to not even consider, thereby, in effect, endorsing Mr. Trump’s bias on the matter.

All of which is to say that the general media's failure to largely overlook the issue of free choice is yet another example of what we at GetReligion often refer to as Kellerism. Where are the voices on that side of the issue, in mainstream news coverage?

Here's one final note, mentioned in one of the many news stories and opinion pieces that The New York Times has run on the burkini ban. Our own tmatt mentioned this wrinkle in the debates in an earlier post:

The mayors who have enacted bans justify them with vague rationales that include maintaining public order and hygiene, “good morals” and laïcité [France's official secularism].
The reality is far less clear, and in fact the presence of burkinis could be taken as a sign that at least some French Muslims have a relatively liberal stance, said Marwan Muhammad, the executive director of the Center Against Islamophobia in France. In conservative Muslim countries, women would never go to a beach with men, much less go swimming, since even in the burkini the wet cloth sticks to a woman’s body, outlining her curves.
“This is a good news in a way because it means Muslim women who didn’t used to enjoy that day at the beach or at the pool are now taking part, they are socializing,” he said.

Now, isn't that what the French want?

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