Picture this: you’re sitting on a beach minding your own business when four burly men approach you with guns to their sides demanding that you remove layers of your clothing. If you’ve been following the news or reading online then the following image is exactly what you’re picturing: the burkini ban in France.
But if you haven’t been reading online, doesn’t this sound kind of like sexual harassment? I mean we’re talking about two old guys and two men in speedos – by the way, that’s one clothing item that we can all agree should have been banned many years ago – straight up forcing a woman to disrobe herself in front of a dozen different strangers. If this were anywhere but France I’m sure one of those dozen strangers would be calling the cops on those guys, but I guess that’s the difference here. This is France and in France it is okay to tell a woman to take off her hijab or modest swimwear if it brings forth religiousness in a public sphere. This is otherwise known as secularism, which by definition is “the principle of the separation of the state from religious institutions”. Secularism also entails that “people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law”. Basically, religion should not play a role in government, school or any public affairs. However, people of different religious backgrounds should be respected and treated equally under the law. The irony here is France’s reputation for being a well-known democratic society that cares about the human rights and freedoms of its people, and yet it consistently puts this importance to the side when it comes to foreigners or those who do not choose to conform entirely into the French/European culture. In hindsight, we are forced to question why French municipalities aren’t enforcing policemen to fine swimmers in wetsuits or nuns in habits or demand them to disrobe themselves in the eyes of the public. Why is the burkini so offensive when it is a garment made to swim in, like a wetsuit, whereas wearing the habit in public is not offensive when it is made for religious purposes? At Her Campus we are here to break down the facts of the great burkini debate in France.
What the heck is a burkini?
By now, if you are not familiar with this topic you’re probably thinking what in the world is a burkini? This is a burkini created by Aheda Zanetti.
In 2003, Zanetti watched her niece play sports in the extreme Australian heat wondering if there are clothes that can help religious women pursue their physical and sporty activities while still remaining modest in attire. According to CBC News, Zanetti says: “Banning the swimsuits because they oppress women shows a lack of understanding about why she made them in the first place: to give women options”. The burkini was created by Zanetti who hoped to liberate Muslim women to be a part of society by playing in sports, swimming in beaches etc., and not the opposite of what the government of France has been trying to do by implementing this decree, which forcefully disintegrates Muslim women from French society.
So what is the ban in the first place? Let me put this as simply and straightforward as possible, it is literally a ban on a piece of clothing. One that is liberating to one group of women, yet seems to be threatening to another group of the population. The people of France seem to be offended by women who choose to come to a public beach having most of their body covered. According to the Washington Post, in the month of July “more than two dozens French cities outlawed the full-bodied swimsuit. Local governments imposed the bans in the name of secularism because, for some, the burkini seemed an unwelcome display of religion threatening the basic French ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.” As ridiculous as this ban may seem to some like myself, the majority of people in France don’t view this the same way. According to Le Institut Français D’Opinion Publique (IFOP), an international polling and market research firm, 64 percent of French people are opposed to wearing the burkini on public beaches. I am no math expert but I know for sure, THAT is A LOT of people, which is quite startling. Why is it that the majority of French people are against the burkini? Two words: France’s government. The very people leading the country are somehow using this piece of clothing to create uproar in its country against Muslim people, conveniently at a time of terrorism. In an article in the Washington Post, former president Nicolas Sarkozy stated that “the burkini is a ‘provocation’, a symbol of radical Islam in a country still reeling from the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice”. Current Prime Minister, Manuel Valls compared the burkini “as a means of ‘enslavement’, the subjugation of women to a patriarchal religion”.
Pros/ Cons of The Ban
In a country surrounded by secularism it is understandable how something that promotes religion should not be welcome in a public space. So my question is, how does the burkini promote religion? Does the burkini pose a threat? Here’s a list of pros and cons surrounding this debate:
- Banning the burkini is consistent with the banning of the hijab and burka, which was implemented in 2004; thus, the prohibition is justified.
- The ban helps protect secularism. Since those in favour of the ban believe the burkini to symbolize religion, tolerating the burkini in public spaces may lead to tolerating other religious symbols in the future.
- The ban on the hijab and burka should not extend to the burkini because the burkini is not a religious garment.
- The burkini is basically a wetsuit without a hood, so if burkini’s are banned then why aren’t wetsuits?
- The burkini actually liberates Muslim women. It is not oppression if it’s a choice.
- Banning the burkini promotes Islamophobia.
- Banning the burkini prevents integrating Muslim women into society.
- The prohibition of wearing the burkini goes against individual rights and liberties.
The important thing to consider here is that this clothing article is a form of liberation. The burkini is a choice, rather than a form of oppression. It allows women to feel free enough to go out in a public space in which they could never feel comfortable without the burkini. A ‘radical Islamist’ would not be at the beach point final, thus, the bikini is not symbolizing Islam nor is it a form of subjugating women to a patriarchal society, it is a form of liberating and integrating those that are Islamic into the French culture. Zanetti states: “The burkini is about integration, acceptance and being equal rather than being judged and ridiculed in front of people”. Furthermore, she states that “the garment is not limited to just Muslim women, it is suited for anyone looking for modest swimwear such as people with skin cancer or a new mother who doesn’t feel comfortable to wear a bikini”.
According to the Washington Post article, “Muslims see these bans (the burkini, the hijab, the burka) as hidden institutionalized Islamophobia in a country that has one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe”. When the leader of a nation is making such a big deal over what seems to be a very tiny issue linked to Islam, it’s almost hard not to think that this is yet another way of pitting Muslims against non-Muslims. The promotion of secularism in a liberal democracy is intended to foster equality among citizens, banning the burkini is doing just the opposite. Opposing the burkini ban is not a way of fighting against French values and culture, it is simply a fight for the protection of a minority group’s basic human rights.
France, I think it’s time you change your “liberty, equality and fraternity” motto because:
- You are not liberating these Muslim women; in fact YOU are oppressing them.
- You are not treating these women equal to the rest of your citizens, you are infringing on their basic human rights.
- You are not fraternizing these women; you are giving them further reason to feel discriminated and alienated by getting rid of them instead of integrating them into your society.
Aftermath of the Ban
As of August 26, the burkini ban has been overturned by the highest court in France, making the decree to ban women from beaches who are largely covered from head to toe illegal and against the law. The French courts agreed that banning the burkini is “an insult to fundamental freedoms such as the freedom of conscience and personal liberty”.
Despite the ban being overturned by the highest court, the Prime Minister of France and mayors of the cities that decreed the ban are trying to gain support even though as of now it is going against the law and is illegal. Valls wrote on Facebook that the burkini “is the affirmation of political Islam in the public space”. However, before any of this burkini debate nonsense, there was absolutely nothing political about the burkini in the first place as it really was entirely a new form of swimwear made to enable Muslim women to participate in sports and feel free to go to beaches, water parks, public pools etc.
To that end, I ask the supporters of this ban why it is considered oppression if a Muslim man orders a Muslim woman to wear modest clothes, but it is not considered oppression when a caucasian police officer orders a Muslim woman to take off layers of her clothes?
Fellow collegiates, what are your opinions on the great burkini debate? Is it a feminist empowerment movement or is it an expression of a growing anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe?