Katha Pollitt is excellent on why coercively policing the appearance of women in the name of secularism is not better than doing so in the name of religion:
But how do bans on Islamic dress—the head scarf, the niqab, and now the burkini—free women? That would be true only if wearing them were enforced by Muslim communities regardless of women’s own preferences. This is the case in Saudi Arabia and Iran, where covering is the law, and in parts of many Muslim-majority countries by social custom. When France instituted its ban on head scarves in public schools in 2004, it was justified as necessary in part to protect schoolgirls from male relatives keen to control them. (Those views now seem overblown.) The same theory explains why the ban on wearing the niqab (the two-part full-face veil) in public calls for a €150 fine for the woman, but a whopping €30,000 fine and a year in jail for any person who forces a woman to wear it. (No one has yet been convicted.) As Ed Vulliamy points out in The Guardian, though, the penalty for wearing a burkini (€38 in Cannes) falls on the woman alone. Are those women subjugating themselves? “It is my choice to try and cover whilst poolside so I can feel comfortable and make the most out of my love for swimming, and my faith,” writes Shereen Malherbe on Muslimah Media Watch.
The apparent fact that some Muslim women want to wear burkinis doesn’t mean that the garment isn’t sexist. Sexism would never have become the powerful social force it is if women didn’t buy into it too. That’s why it’s easy to find women who think that a woman who won’t wear a burqa—or a knee-length skirt—is asking to be raped. Still, it’s hard to see pathbreaking Muslim Olympic athletes like the hijab-wearing American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad or Egyptian volleyball player Doaa Elghobashy as lacking agency. Even if you think Islamic garb—or Orthodox wigs, or fundamentalist-Mormon prairie dresses—is a fashion prison, it doesn’t follow that banning it is the path to liberation.
In fact, it does the opposite: It fetishizes Islamic covering as a communal identity marker and turns it into a way of poking the majority culture in the eye. It also further marginalizes Muslim women. Not men, who dress as they please with no awkward questions about whether they truly want to sport that beard or crocheted skullcap. In France, street attacks on women in Muslim dress have increased since the niqab ban. A Muslim woman in a head scarf can’t work in a government job. According to a recent legal ruling, she can even be denied a job in a day-care center lest she give toddlers the wrong idea about a woman’s place. Prime Minister Valls even wants to ban the head scarf from universities. This isn’t feminism; it’s cultural panic.