A woman wearing a burkini

“I have noticed that the girls who wear sensible one-piece costumes are full of sound sense.” — Bondi Life Guard, 1956.

“A beach outfit showing in an ostentatious manner a religious affiliation … has the nature of creating risks of troubles of public order.” — Cannes, 2016.

Bikini/burkini, what’s the difference apart from 50 years of society apparently learning nothing about tolerance?

Today’s imagery is of four heavily armed French police officers surrounding a lone woman on a Cannes beach, ordering her to remove her long-sleeved top, and giving her an on-the-spot fine for what, exactly? She’s wearing a headscarf, but her face isn’t in any way concealed. Her matching top is a shapeless garment, indistinguishable from standard beachwear of any culture anywhere. Her sole distinguishing feature is that she’s a Muslim woman on a beach.

The city of Cannes has banned “burkinis”, or modest, loose clothing favoured by some Muslim women at the beach, declaring:

“Access to beaches and for swimming is banned to any person wearing improper clothes that are not respectful of good morals and secularism.

“Beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is liable to create risks of disrupting public order.”

During the 1940s-60s, Sydney’s beaches were the scene of numerous arrests of young women who were flagrantly ignoring the Local Government Act Ordinance No. 52 (1935), which stipulated, in considerable detail, what could legally be worn as a swimming costume in public. It mandated legs at least three inches long, and that the costume must completely cover the front of the body from the armpits to the waist. Strapless numbers were also banned.

[The anti-Islam crusade endorsed by Bolt, Kruger is already happening]

A famous 1961 Les Tanner cartoon skewered the stupidity of this law beautifully, but it had taken 26 years for a law that attempted to define public decency in tape-measured body-covering terms to finally be repealed.

Where’s that other parallel in the back of our minds? Oh yeah, on the streets of Tehran, where the Basij, the morality police, harass and arrest women for not covering their faces, hands or legs. Same-same or different to Bondi, 1956? The underpinning legal principle in both cases is the maintenance of public morals on a foundation of religious belief.

In France, the mayor of Cannes would argue, the situation is quite distinct. The burkini ban is a temporary law, justified by the desirability of reducing social tensions in that city after the horrific terror attack a month ago that took 84 lives on the beachfront promenade. Judging from the mayor’s words, in that context the choice to wear a burkini can only be a deliberately provocative act.  Public safety demands extraordinary measures.

The result of course is the spectacle of women being forced to reveal more of their bodies, in pursuance of the defence of Western society and all its precious freedoms from the prescriptive intrusions of a religion that (in its more conservative forms) dictates that women must be covered head to foot. As ironies go, it’s a category killer.

France has form in this field. It has been the law there since 2011 that the burqa and niqab, which cover the whole face (except the eyes in the niqab’s case) cannot be worn in public. Muslim headscarves and other conspicuous religious symbols have been banned in French schools since 2004.

While similar legislative demands in Australia (such as by Fred Nile, Jacqui Lambie and Pauline Hanson) are guaranteed to cause a major furore, in France there is a long tradition of impinging “normal” human freedoms in the name of national harmony (meaning conformity). France has extremely tough laws affecting free speech in areas such as Holocaust denial. The Academie Francaise has since 1635 been the official authority on correct usage of the French language and is still working hard to hold back the tide of Anglicised words. Whatever “Liberte” is supposed to mean, it obviously isn’t freedom to be different.

[No uncorrupted man may fear Hanson … except Muslims, obviously]

Ironically (again), it is arguably the intensity of the French passion for preserving whatever is meant by “French culture” that has caused the abject failure of its immigrant populations to be integrated into the community, the inevitably consequent tensions and France’s current appalling vulnerability to homegrown Islamic terrorism.

Is it fair to draw a line from prudish bikini bans to national security-driven enforcement of a cultural demand that we all show our faces? Not entirely; there is at least a contentious practical justification for requiring faces to be unconcealed.

That logic, fragile as it is, can’t be rationally extended to making women disrobe in public. In Cannes, we are back to the same idiotic pursuit of indefinable public morals, which is no different from Bondi 1956 or Tehran 1979, which causes police to degrade themselves and their office as they arrest women for wearing too many or too few clothes. The humiliation is felt by the victims, but it’s owned by the society that permits this new Puritanism to exist.