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Burkini : when France is threatened by swimwear
France has recently made the headlines. Sadly, it was not for the right reasons. Over the last month, more than 30 French towns have banned the burkini on their beaches. Many people were shocked by this decision. What has happened to trigger such a fierce debate?
What is burkini?
The name of this swimwear comes from the mix between “burqa” and ‘bikini”. It was originally made for Muslim women who want to bathe. The burkini covers the whole body except the face, hands and feet. Aheda Zanetti is Australian and she is the creator of this swimwear. She initially designed it “to give women freedom, not to take it away”. She feels sad when thinking about the debate raging in France about her burkini. “It symbolises leisure and happiness and fun and fitness and health”, she claimed, “and now they are demanding women get off the beach and back into their kitchens?”
Why is there such a debate?
Many people had never heard about the burkini before 28 July, when the mayor of Cannes David Lisnard passed a local by-law banning “beachwear ostentatiously showing a religious affiliation.” Soon after, about 30 French town did the same. The by-laws never mention the burkini, but it is obvious that it is the target. The newspaper Nice Matin has called David Lisnard, who said he has “not banned the Muslim headscarf, the kippah, nor the crucifix, I have just banned something which is the symbol of Islamic extremism.”
Oh, we didn’t know that only extremists liked to bathe in a burkini…
But David Lisnard was not the first one to ban the swimwear. It has been prohibited in Mandelieu-la-Napoule since 2014, but this has been unnoticed until now.
However, women still wear this outfit that “threatens” our country and are fined €38 (£32) if they are found wearing it on the beach.
Ever since the debate started, the Organisation against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) has been fighting against the ban, which is “a serious infringement to freedom of religious expression.” Sarah is a lawyer for the CCIF. She told me she is “astounded” by the by-laws: “It has worsened the stigmatisation against Muslims, particularly Muslim women”. Mayors explained that they are preserving laicity, but “only the state and civil servants should be religiously neutral, not its citizens who are enjoying time on the beach” she claimed.
The CCIF urges for the by-law to be suspended in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet. The Council of state, the highest French court has voted against the by-law banning the burkini. The Human Rights League was fighting against it with them. The HRL Honorary Chairman, Michel Tubiana, told me that he was ready to go to the European Court of Human Rights if the state council voted in favour of the ban.
Are we not going too far ?
France has been in hight alert since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015. But are we not going too far to “protect public order”?
The ban only targets “beachwear”, but it seems that policemen are not clear on what is and is not banned. A French woman claimed she has been fined for wearing a hijab with leggings and a tunic. She was therefore not wearing a swimsuit but daily clothes. Some might say: “you know, bathing with clothes you have worn all day is not very hygienic.” Are you worried for the fish ? How nice. But I am not sure that David Lisnard and other mayors wanted to protect the environment with this ban.
As long as the permitted beachwear is not precisely specified, this could go far, really far.
The Daily Mail has published photos which quickly spread on the internet. A woman who is not wearing a burkini is lying on the beach, listening to the sound of the waves. The policemen seem to be embarrassed by her pants, long-sleeves and scarf. They asked her to remove the top she wore over her T-shirt so she does not threaten the nation.
Muslim clothes are then frightening, is this the same for the other religions? Sir, please, remove your kippah, who knows what you could hide under it. Dear nuns, forget about a picnic by the sea, you could cause trouble. Do you hide guns under your dress? As long as you are not on the beach, this doesn’t matter.
Do you feel ashamed of your curves? Please show them, you could be dangerous with this outfit. What about the facekini? This hideous Chinese trend helps women keeping their skin white by entirely covering their face. No link with with religion, but hiding your face has been prohibited in France for more than 5 years. Is this a public order offence to cause nightmares? What would the French police do if Chinese people were using it in Cannes?
In a nutshell, this debate does not make any sense.
As many as 64% of French people agree with the mayors banning the burkini, according to an Ifop study. However, many others do not understand the point of it. Even feminist associations (who are fiercely opposed to the headscarf) support women wearing burkinis. “Muslim women are the victims here, they are humiliated by racist and sexist people” the association Osez le féminisme said in a letter.
On 25 August, protesters brought their own beach to the front of the French embassy in London. Sand, towels, lilos and swimsuits. Their slogan was “Non à l’islamophobie, oui au burkini” (no to islamophobia, yes to the burkini). Maybe showing your opinion with humour will lighten up the intensifying debate.
What do the Britons think about it ?
Newspapers of the whole world have made fun of the French for banning the burkini.
In the UK, Britons do not really understand why the mayors of 30 towns would do it. The Guardian has published “five reasons to wear a burkini – and not just to annoy the French”, while the very conservative Daily Mail has mocked the “burkini cops.” The BBC is worried about the divers who could be thought to be Muslim women wearing the banned swimsuit.
Media have also pointed out that the burkini is not only used by Muslim women. The cook Nigella Lawson has worn it in Australia to protect her skin from the blazing sun.
French are not only shocked by the debate, but also ashamed to be seen as racists and sexists, whereas it simply seems to be a way for our politicians to make people talk of them before the presidential election. Bravo to the country of the Human Rights!