The burkini, a full-body bathing suit designed to conform to Islamic modesty codes, has caused quite the controversy in France. This summer, the burkini has been banned in more than 30 French towns and resorts as a response to concerns about radical Islamic terrorism (1). The ban was justified according to the Cannes government because “beach attire that ostentatiously displays a religious affiliation, while France and places of worship are the target of terrorist acts, is likely to create risks to public order” (2). In response to the ban, France’s highest administrative court ruled it violates fundamental liberties and is illegal as there were no proven risks of disruption to public order, or reasons of hygiene or decency for the ban (3). Yet, 22 towns in France are maintaining a ban on the burkini despite the court rulings (4). Tensions are high between those who see the laws as a violation of religious freedom and those who view the burkini as inconsistent with France's high regard for secularism.
The refusal to uphold the court mandated right to a burkini is adding to the political tension in France. Cogolin Mayor Marc Etienne Lansade, of the right-wing National Front political party, intends to enforce the ban until September 15, saying that women are forced to wear burkinis and that the government must protect them from this pressure (5). French Prime Minister Manuel Valls called the burkini a "symbol of the enslavement of women," and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called wearing the burkini a “provocation” (6). Ignoring both religious liberties and the ruling of the courts, politicians have been called out for manipulating the situation for political gain, and using it to deliberately target Muslim women following a string of terrorist attacks. Sefen Guez Guez, an attorney for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, has claimed that the bans were part of a political agenda aimed at winning elections and not a necessary security precaution (7).
Human rights activists argue that efforts to outlaw the burkini are Islamophobic. The United Nations have labeled the bans in France as "a grave and illegal breach of fundamental freedoms" and a "stupid reaction" to recent extremist attacks (8). The Collective Against Islamophobia in France plans to sue each municipality maintaining the ban on the burkini (9). There has also been international outrage amongst the public after photos of armed police forcing a Muslim woman to take off her clothing layers on a beach in Nice were circulated on the internet. The woman was publicly humiliated as others on the beach yelled degrading comments at her and cheered the French police on. In response, Twitter users posted photos of nuns wading into the water wearing their habits and called out the French government for the hypocrisy that they didn’t make the nuns take their clothes off too (10). Others shared photos of a man wearing a wetsuit in comparison to a woman wearing a burkini, emphasizing the ridiculousness that the wetsuit was deemed appropriate while the burkini wasn't (11).
While the French politicians maintain their stance that the burkini is a provocative political danger and representative of the enslavement of women, the designer of the swimsuit, Lebanese-Australian inventor, Aheda Zanetti, said that many people have misunderstood it. She explains that she created it for women who want to maintain modesty while still having the freedom to enjoy an active lifestyle and participate in any sporting activities (12). “The burkini swimsuit is freedom and happiness and lifestyle changes — you can’t take that away from a Muslim, or any other woman, that chooses to wear it,” Ms. Zanetti said (13). Many women choose to wear the burkini out of desire for comfort and because they are proud of their religious culture. One Muslim woman explained that she wore a burkini because she did not like having her body too exposed in public due to the over-sexualizing nature of society (14). Forcing a woman to strip in public so that they show more skin is an abuse of power. The mayors that have created the bans have done so not for legitimate concern for the freedom of the women, but to make a political statement to showcase their authority to mandate what a woman can put on her body.
Even though it is true that many women living in Islamic countries experience harsh repression and are forced into wearing very modest clothes, banning their right to wear them is not the right answer. It is counterintuitive that the French government wants to free women from their oppression of restrictive clothing, yet they impose laws restricting what they can wear. It is also sexist to assume that just because a Muslim woman is wearing modest clothing that she is oppressed and “in need of saving.” The politicians claim that they want to free these women from their enslavement, but they are not actually giving these women the freedom to wear what they want or have a voice in this debate. If the French want to free women from oppression, they should promote freedom of religion, instead of imposing a facade of equality upon them against their will.
The banning of the burkini is just one part of the larger issue. The French concept of state secularism, laïcité, is a defining principle of the republic that repeatedly comes in conflict with Muslim beliefs. In theory, laïcité promotes secularism and keeping religious belief private. However, in practice, laïcité has enabled discrimination. Regulations aimed at Islam have increased over the years with a ban of wearing headscarves in public high schools in 2004, another law banning the full-faced veil in public spaces in 2010 and now the ban of the burkini (15). Although Muslim students might not wear head scarves, some schools hold Mass every day, and nearly every French state holiday is a Roman Catholic holy day (16). Likewise, nuns are allowed to wear clothes that cover their bodies on the beach, but Muslim women are denied the same right. If France is really going to use the justification of secularism either everything must be allowed or everything must be banned. Politicians cannot continue manipulating laïcité to specifically target those of Muslim belief.
The recent terrorist attacks in France have been tragic and the concern over radical Islam is understandable. Though, by banning the burkini, the French officials are giving into the fear and hatred that the radicals depend on. The public humiliation of a Muslim woman by forcing her to take off her clothes in public only fuels the radicals’ belief that Western countries are at war with Islam. France is supposed to be a country of liberty, equality and fraternity, but Muslim women are being denied these rights. Everyone should have religious freedom and the right to wear what they want. Instead of calming religious tensions, the bans have had the opposite effect. The ban on the burkini is not only illegal, but also ridiculously misguided.
(1)Mortensen, Antonia, and Angela Dewan. "French Towns Maintain Burkini Bans despite Court Rulings." CNN. Cable News Network, 31 Aug. 2016. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.
(2) Breeden, Aurelien, and Lilia Blaise. "Cannes, Citing Security Risks, Bans Full-Body ‘Burkinis’ From Its Beaches." The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 Aug. 2016. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.
(3) Sims, Alexandra. "Burkini Ban in Cannes Overturned as French Court Rules Decree 'violates Basic Freedoms'" The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 31 Aug. 2016. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.
(4) Mortensen, Antonia, and Angela Dewan. "French Towns Maintain Burkini Bans despite Court Rulings." CNN. Cable News Network, 31 Aug. 2016. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.
(5) Mortensen, Antonia, and Angela Dewan. "French Towns Maintain Burkini Bans despite Court Rulings." CNN. Cable News Network, 31 Aug. 2016. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.
(8) Sims, Alexandra. "Burkini Ban in Cannes Overturned as French Court Rules Decree 'violates Basic Freedoms'" The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 31 Aug. 2016. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.
(9) Mortensen, Antonia, and Angela Dewan. "French Towns Maintain Burkini Bans despite Court Rulings." CNN. Cable News Network, 31 Aug. 2016. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.
(10) Rubin, Alissa J. "French ‘Burkini’ Bans Provoke Backlash as Armed Police Confront Beachgoers." The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Aug. 2016. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.
(12) Bilefsky, Dan. "France’s Burkini Debate Reverberates Around the World." The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 Aug. 2016. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.
(14) Readers, Guardian, and Carmen Fishwick. "Why We Wear the Burkini: Five Women on Dressing Modestly at the Beach." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 31 Aug. 2016. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.
(15) Erlanger, Steven, and Kimiko De Freytas-tamura. "Old Tradition of Secularism Clashes With France’s New Reality." The New York Times. The New York Times, 05 Feb. 2015. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.
Image: © Gabriel Petrescu | Dreamstime.com - Women dressed in traditional Islamic dress on beach
Erin is from Chicago, a junior at USC and plans on graduating in May 2018. She is a political science major with minors in psychology and business law, currently studying abroad at the University of Cape Town.