France’s burkini ban is terrible and wrong.
On Tuesday, a woman resting in the sun on the beach in Nice, France was confronted by the police and forced to strip off some of her clothing.
The confrontation is the latest development in the controversial ban on the “burkini” —a full-body swimsuit akin to a wet suit with a head covering, primarily worn by Muslim women — spreading throughout France’s beach towns. Supporters of the ban appeal to France’s strict form of secularism. Opponents say that it is stigmatizing, Islamophobic, and a violation of religious freedom.
Pictures of the altercation between the woman and the police show at least four armed officers standing around the woman, who is lying on the ground. She then removes a long-sleeved blue tunic as the police and swimsuit-clad bathers watch over her. According to The Guardian, one of the officers appears to issue her a ticket.
Is this laïcité? Is this what being liberal looks like? Men forcing women to take clothes off? https://t.co/NOT4IcvuF5
— Aisha S Gani (@aishagani) August 23, 2016
The photographs of the woman being forced to remove her clothes circulated Tuesday as another woman along the coastline in Cannes was fined for wearing leggings, a tunic, and a headscarf on the beach. According to her ticket, obtained by Agence France Presse (AFP), she was fined for not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.” She was not in fact wearing a burkini, which has also been banned on Cannes’ beaches.
A witness to the scene in Cannes, Mathilde Cousin, reported that people around the woman, who only told AFP her first name, Siam, were cheering the police and verbally attacking the woman.
“The saddest thing was that people were shouting ‘go home’, some were applauding the police,” Cousin said, according to The Guardian. “Her daughter was crying.”
“The saddest thing was that people were shouting ‘go home’, some were applauding the police.”
Nice and Cannes are two in a string of towns in the French Riviera to ban the burkini following the Bastille Day terrorist attack that occurred in Nice last month. The ban has been attacked by human rights groups as oppressive and stigmatizing. On Thursday, it will go before France’s highest administrative court, following an appeal by the Humans Rights League, a French NGO, challenging the decision of a lower court that upheld the ban.
Although the ban on the burkini is the latest example, the policing of Muslim women’s clothing is a very old political game in France.
France’s particular brand of secularism
The thorny current debate about what women can and cannot wear in public grows, in part, out of the historical context of French secularism.
While American secularism rose out of a context of many religions — and thus protects the freedom to express diverse religious beliefs — French secularism rose out of the complete and utter dominance of Catholicism. The dominant necessity in 1905, when the foundation for French secularism was laid, was to protect people’s right to exist outside the monolithic religious apparatus.
The secularism that arose as a result, known in French as laïcité, might be better thought of as freedom from religion — and this is what lies at the center of the burkini dispute.
Broadly speaking, laïcité means that, for many in France, religion is considered a wholly private entity, and anything that publicly expresses religion is an unwelcome intrusion into the rigidly secular public sphere.
In theory, this restriction on public expression applies to all religions. In practice, however, laws enforcing this rigid secularism disproportionately impact and stigmatize believers of minority religions, while preserving the religious rights of the Christian majority.
Although the climate is particularly tense now, the burkini ban is hardly the first example. In 2004 (amidst rising general suspicion of Islam after the 9/11 terror attacks) French president Jacques Chirac signed into law the infamous Law 2004–228, which generally prohibits the wearing of “conspicuous” religious attire in French public primary and secondary schools.
Although that prohibition could theoretically apply to any religion, Christian crosses are considered “discreet” and therefore allowed, while headscarves, turbans, and yarmulkes are barred without exception. Muslim girls who wear headscarves, for example, must choose between an education and adhering to their religion, while Christian girls who wear religious jewelry face no such choice. Colloquially, Law 2004–228 is known as the “French headscarf ban.”
In 2012, the U.N. Human Rights Committee issued a binding decision finding that Law 2004–228 violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights. But the law remains in effect — and the political atmosphere in France shows that the country is actually doubling down.
For instance, in his comeback bid for the presidency, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is proposing extending the headscarf ban further into public life. Currently, the ban on modest clothing extends to primary and secondary schools and the beach; Sarkozy wants to go further and ban the Muslim headscarf from universities and public companies.
On top of that, Sarkozy — who banned the niqab in public places in France in 2012 — has other ideas about marginalizing religious minorities. He’s proposing to ban pork-free options in lunchrooms, meaning that Muslim and Jewish children couldn’t get a substitute meal, and to limit French nationality rights if the child has foreign parents.
Feeding into dangerous stereotypes about Islam
Instead of protecting religious freedom, the rigid secularism of laïcité is providing a veil for blatant Islamophobia and ugly ethno-nationalism.
In the wake of a year in which France has endured three deadly terrorist attacks claimed by radical Islamists, French academics, historians, and NGOs have warned that politicians are perverting the principle to attack and stigmatize Islam.
Supporters of the new ban on burkinis claim that, in the aftermath of these attacks, obvious displays of “allegiance” to Islam are offensive.
The Nice tribunal that upheld that city’s burkini ban ruled that the full-body swimsuit could come across as “a defiance or provocation exacerbating tensions.” After Cannes first banned burkinis from public beaches, the head of municipal services for the town went a step further, telling AFP that the ban was on “ostentatious clothing which refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements which are at war with us.”
This line of attack is incredibly damaging: Explicitly linking the act of wearing a headscarf to an endorsement of ISIS’ terrorism is a false equivalency that feeds into stereotypes about Islam and fosters Islamophobia.
There’s also an inherent hypocrisy at play here because the same standard doesn’t apply to Catholic nun’s habits, despite the violence that’s historically been committed in the name in Christianity.
Such an affront to secularism! I bet they're indoctrinating kids. What weapons hide under their habits? Fine them! pic.twitter.com/a1Q4M2xGsu
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) August 24, 2016
Taking away women’s freedom over their own bodies
Supporters of the burkini bans and similar restrictions on modesty clothing sometimes try to cloak their position in feminism — saying these policies are necessary for women’s own protection.
In coming out in support of the burkini ban, France’s socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that in addition to spreading an “ideological message,” the Islamic veil is akin to the “enslavement of women.”
But under the guide of saving women from being “forced” to dress in a way that is deemed oppressive, this is simply forcing something else upon women. It’s just another way of policing what women are allowed to wear, assuming they somehow aren’t capable of making their own choices.
And it places women’s bodies, yet again, as the nexus upon which larger wars of religion and politics are fought. When that happens, women are the ones who lose.
Aside from arguments that explicitly appeal to the role of women in Islam, suggesting that burkinis might exacerbate tensions among secular beach-goers also makes it clear that Muslim women’s right to control what they put on their bodies is less valid than the rights of others to not see things that make them uncomfortable. Muslim women, by this argument, are clearly considered as secondary to other French citizens.
Incidentally, that plays right into ISIS and similar terrorist groups’ hands: Devaluing Muslim lives is fodder for radicalization, as the destruction of the grey zone of tolerance and pluralism that allows moderate Islam to exist peacefully in Western countries.
Most women who wear headscarves choose to do so; and even in the opposite case, it’s hardly likely to be the case that they’ll suddenly be allowed to wear bikinis. Instead, restricting what they’re allowed to wear in public means they’ll lose the chance to go to the beach or participate in public life at all.
“When I invented the burkini in early 2004, it was to give women freedom, not to take it away.”
Aheda Zanetti, the woman who developed the burkini, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian saying this is precisely why she developed the burkini in the first place: to give women who wanted to remain modest the choice and the opportunity to move freely in modern society.
“When I invented the burkini in early 2004, it was to give women freedom, not to take it away,” she wrote. “When I was a girl, I missed out on sport — we didn’t participate in anything because we chose to be modest.”
Watching her niece play sports in a hijab and look miserable, however, she got the idea to create a sports outfit that would “adapt to the Australian lifestyle and western clothing but at the same time fulfill the needs of a Muslim girl.” In so doing, she made it possible for women to dress as they chose, and still swim and play sports in public.
“This has given women freedom, and they want to take that freedom away?”