Burkini Bans and the psychology of social identities.

BurqiniThe Psychology of Burkini Bans

A wave of bans across France of Muslim sportswear known as ‘burkinis’ has raised a furore both in France and the rest of the world, and a veritable storm of social media activity . How can we understand this burkini ban from a psychological point of view? And what is the likely result of such a burkini ban for the future?

Background to the burkini-ban

For those of you where this has received less news coverage, here is some background. In the wake of a string of religiously motivated terror attacks attacks in France, the wearing of burkinis (think a lightweight body suit with a built in headscarf and some extra fabric sections to conceal the shape of the body) has been banned in many French constituencies. This came to a head (and international attention) when photos of a women apparently being made to remove elements of her clothing by police hit the internet.

Acculturation psychology and the burkini

The psychological background is a little complex. One way of understanding a country’s dominant attitude to different cultures is through Berry’s model of acculturation1. This argues that a host culture (the one people have or are moving too) can adopt different strategies. It can either chose to segregate the new culture, splitting them off from the mainstream (think ghettos), demand they integrate by requiring the norms and values origin culture to be abandoned in favour adopting those of the host, encourage multiculturalism which highlights the importance of diversity and the right to hold ones own values (within reason) or adopt a more melting pot approach where both parties evolve a new common set of norms. Berry’s model also suggests those coming into society will have a preferred strategy (choosing to assimilate, integrate, segregate or reject everything). The problems arise when the dominant strategy of the minority group does not mesh with the strategy of the host culture. France has, for many years, adopted a legal and constitutional stance of integration. This means if you want to participate fully, you need to agree to the majority of French norms, customs and practices. Equally, the Muslim faith has a number of imperative beliefs which (may) be seen as contradictory these norms. As the strategies differ, so tensions arise. Mismatches in strategy are often linked to increased discrimination, including violence, intolerance and the like.

So, when are these effects most pronounced? One thing we know from social psychology is that when groups feel threatened, they desire more clarity and are less tolerant of difference. Groups in such positions want clear boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and want people to behave in line with group norms and values more than usual. Others psychological models (such as terror-management-theory2) also suggest that having to confront death and mortality makes one cling to worldviews and beliefs more adherently as a form of existential defence. In the wake of numerous shootings, terror related murders and the like, it is unsurprising that a segment of the French community (and it’s leaders) feels threatened, both in terms of the survival of their social norms and beliefs, and also their personal safety. For these people, a burkini ban fulfils a need for group clarity, and a re-affirmation of what it means ‘to be French’. It is such social identity concerns, not security issues, which drive such law-making. Indeed, a women fined in Cannes for wearing leggings and a headscarf on the beach was ticketed for not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”. If that isn’t a statement about social identity concerns, I don’t know what is!

The world (or at least the online bit) responds en-mass…

As one would imagine, from the outside (and to be fair, from inside France as well) the burkini ban and its subsequent enforcement has made a lot of people very angry. The right to chose what to wear seems to me a pretty basic one, and preventing people wearing religious garb should sit uneasily in any democracy. On social media, condemnation has been loud and widespread. It has also been pretty stereotypical, lumping a nation of people into a single group with a single set of beliefs and responses. Indeed, I yesterday read a post describing ‘the French’ as “loathsome fascist b@$!*%ds..”, and saw many other with similar sentiments. I imagine that this will have more of an effect of increasing social threat which causes discrimination than it does make people step back and consider their position. The result is likely be an increasing belief one is embattled (by both terrorism and the world), more desire for clarity and a subsequent hardening of beliefs in one’s world-view. This is not the best starting place to change people’s minds and make them accept their neighbours and fellow countryfolk as equal, even if they are different. To be clear, I am not saying it is OK (at all) to discriminate against people because you are afraid, or because you are in the grip of social identity insecurity. It is not OK, it is dangerous and offensive. But I am saying taking a social identity perspective helps us understand why people behave in this way, and should perhaps guide how we respond ourselves to discrimination like the burkini ban.

The way forwards

What is sad here is that the Taliban and jihadist movements have score a double victory this year. They have scored PR coups among their supporters with effective acts of terror. But they have also turned the French authorities and (some) of it’s population against their Muslim fellow citizens. Ironically, this latter effect is being compounded by the reactions of (some) the world to France. Thus, the Taliban profit not only by their violence, but also by the effects of discrimination on innocent everyday Muslims which results from it – a currency which I am sure they will use to recruit more people to the cause. If we want to move forwards here we must do so carefully, challenging wrong when we see it (and I believe the burkini ban to be wrong on many democratic and civil right levels), but doing so in a way which recognises the psychological processes which influence when people choose to discriminate in the first place.

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  1. Berry, J. W. (1997). Immigration, acculturation, and adaptation. Applied Psychology, 46(1), 5-34. 
  2. Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In Public self and private self (pp. 189-212). Springer New York. Chicago. 

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