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As France bans burkinis, Canada and Scotland let cops wear hijabs

Officers wearing stetsons attend the funeral for Royal Canadian Mounted Police Constable David Wynn in St. Albert, Alberta, in January 2015. (Reuters/Dan Riedlhuber)
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The French enforcement of a series of local bans on the burkini — a type of swimwear that enables swimmers and beachgoers to adhere to Islamic traditions of modesty — caused outrage both in France and abroad. Images of armed police officers forcing a French Muslim woman to disrobe on a public beach went viral and prompted cries of hypocrisy and sexism aimed at France, which espouses a rigid form of secularism.

As WorldViews noted last week, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls described the simple act of wearing such garments as the "expression of a political project" that was antithetical to French values.

Such dogmatism isn't as mainstream in other Western societies, which was brought into particularly sharp relief by news reports elsewhere this week. In Canada, for example, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — the famous red-coated and wide-brim-hatted "Mounties" — have relaxed their policies so that female Muslim officers can choose to wear a hijab, if they want to.

"The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is a progressive and inclusive police service that values and respects persons of all cultural and religious backgrounds," Scott Bardsley, a spokesman for Canada's public safety ministry, said in an email to CBC. A number of other police jurisdictions, including those in Edmonton and Toronto, already permit officers to wear hijabs.

And in Scotland, local authorities also announced this week that hijabs were now an optional part of a police officer's uniform. Scottish Chief Constable Phil Gormley framed the move, like the Canadians, as a bid to help diversify the police force.

"Like many other employers, especially in the public sector, we are working towards ensuring our service is representative of the communities we serve," Gormley said in a statement. "I hope that this addition to our uniform options will contribute to making our staff mix more diverse and adds to the life skills, experiences and personal qualities that our officers and staff bring to policing the communities of Scotland."

Neither police forces in Canada nor Scotland have many Muslim women in their ranks. But the policy changes are noteworthy as Islamophobia has worsened in Britain and debates over Muslim veils roiled last year's Canadian election campaign.

In Quebec, a French-speaking province whose politics sometimes echo those of its mother nation, stricter bans are enforced over displays of religious symbols in public settings. But Canada as a whole already confronted this debate in the 1990s when it eventually allowed religious Sikhs to wear turbans while in police and military service. A female Canadian air force pilot was first allowed to wear a hijab in 1996.

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