Burkini controversy: TOK activity in analyzing perspectives

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A storm of controversy over a swimming suit? Astonishingly, it’s not even a risqué one! Women have recently been fined in France for keeping too much of their bodies covered on the beach – and towns have passed regional laws to ban the “burkini”.  The ban on this bathing costume, however, has met extensive protest. The top French administrative court has now overturned it. A cultural flashpoint hotly contested, the burkini offers an ideal class activity – not because the TOK course cares about beachwear but because the controversy provides material for students to consider the nature of symbolism and to practise their skills of analyzing perspectives in application to issues very alive in the world.

Basic to understanding language as a way of knowing and the nature of representation in the sciences, the arts, and other areas of knowledge is the concept of symbolism – that not just sounds and words but also objects, places, and actions can mean something beyond themselves, usually within a web of meanings. If I insist that the burkini is really nothing but cloth, you could agree, factually — but at the same time justifiably accuse me of cultural ignorance!  The burkini controversy centres on a piece of clothing – but as the garment provokes reactions, then reactions to those reactions.  In the process, it brings to the surface a number of different cultural perspectives that are articulated, argued and shared in ways that make them accessible.

Burkini: class activity in analysis of perspectives

If you use the burkini controversy in class, you might want to help your students deal quickly with some of the background: religious beliefs on appropriate attire and the relevance to the burkini, French attitudes and legal rulings on religious displays in public spaces in a state committed to secularism (laïcité), emotional reactions to recent terrorist attacks in France increasing islamophobia, and the rights of women to choose what they wear. Some background is essential for understanding — though they are likely gain that in any case if you just set them to reading.

To encourage students to practise their analytical skills, you might want them to refer to the Theory of Knowledge course book to keep handy to remind them of ideas to apply. In TOK, we don’t want student just to describe perspectives in a he-said she-said way, but to use TOK concepts actively to analyze ideas. For instance:

  • Exploring differing perspectives, p.28. This is a basic guide to analysis of the components of perspectives: assumptions, values, selection of facts, methods of verification, implications of accepting the point of view.
  • Fallacies of argument 1: Errors in the reasoning process, p.126. This section is helpful for dealing with hasty generalizations, slippery slope arguments and grey scales, implied premises, and straw man arguments. Students should be learning to notice how these are used in argument.
  • Representation and perspectives, p. 150. These pages are helpful for identifying characteristics of reporting that are tied to a perspective, such as selection, emphasis, colouring of emotion and values, relationship of parts, and framing in context.
  • Fallacies of argument 3: misleading appeals to emotion, p. 171. Perhaps most relevant are the appeal to belonging and the appeal to anxiety or fear. Again, students will ideally be becoming more attuned to how these are used in argument.
  • Perspectives in normative ethics, p. 265. This table sums up major lines of ethical argument. It’s useful in understanding arguments based on consistent application of a principle (however interpreted) and those based on the effects of actions (however measured and predicted).

And then — when they have come to grips with symbolism and the creation of cultural meaning through investigating this case study — and when they have applied their minds to work through the different assumptions, values, selected facts, implications, and such – then they are in a position to reach their own conclusions and formulate their own arguments. That’s when we can feel satisfied that we have led a good class not on the burkini – which has done its part in providing a fine example – but on concepts in theory of knowledge.

Below: Some articles to start off student analysis of perspectives

“France’s burkini ban overturned by highest court”, CBC (Associated Press), August 26, 2016

This AP article is about the ban at the point of having been overturned. Its retrospective view pulls together a number of different perspectives.  Useful starting point.

James McAuley, “France’s top administrative court overturns burkini ban”, Washington Post, August 26, 2016.

This article is likewise useful in swiftly identifying major perspectives. It also includes photos of burkinis and a short explanatory video.

Ben Quinn, “French police make woman remove clothing on Nice beach following burkini ban”, The Guardian, August 24, 2016.

This article gives information on the French towns to ban the burkini, and their association of the garment with Islam and recent terrorist attacks. It also includes a photo of four French policemen standing over a woman and apparently telling her to take off her clothing – a photo that many commentators took to be much more meaningfully symbolic than the garment itself.

Geoffroy Clavel, “Nicolas Sarkozy Promises Nationwide Ban Of Burkinis If Elected”, HuffPost France, August 26, 2016.

This article gives the former French president’s reasons for supporting a ban on the burkini, quoting him as describing wearing burkinis as “a militant, provocative, and political act.”

“Nice Deputy Mayor: Burkini is an ‘Islamist provocation’”, BBC Newshour, August 24, 2016.

This radio clip features the deputy mayor of Nice, one of the towns that instituted the ban, defending his point of view that the burkini is an “Islamist provocation.”

“Canadian-Israeli modest swimwear designer decries flap over burkinis”, radio As It Happens, Canadian Broadcasting Company CBC, August 26, 2016.

This radio interview with a designer puts the burkini in a larger context of women’s swimwear for modesty and religious dictates, not specifically for Muslim women and not specifically in France.

Rachel Shabi, “Burkini ban: New wave of French ‘mission civilisatrice’”, Al Jazeera, August 28, 2016.

This blogger presents the French ban as driven not by secularism but by colonialism.

“France and the burkini”, Feminist Philosophers, August 24, 2016.

This blog commentary makes strong points concisely. The blogger presents the ban not as a form of liberation of women but a form of coercion of women, and as punishment to a “minority group for the actions of a few individuals.”

Sheena McKenzie, “How people around the world are saying no to France’s burkini ban”, CNN, August 26, 2016.

This article does a survey of reactions to the burkini ban, mostly mocking, including some very pointed – and entertaining! — images and cartoons circulated on twitter.

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