EARLIER THIS YEAR, dozens of coastal French towns made international headlines when they enacted ordinances banning burkini swimsuits on local beaches. The burkini — a portmanteau of burka and bikini — is similar to a wet suit, and is a popular swimwear choice among hijabis who want to enjoy waterside activities without compromising their beliefs. It isn’t the only swimsuit designed with religious modesty in mind, but it is the only one to draw the ire of the French government.
The burkini ban wasn’t the first assault made on French Muslims’ religious freedoms in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Since 2004, the country has prohibited school staff from displaying any physical indicators of religious belief. France extended that prohibition to all public servants in 2007. Later, in 2010, the highest court in the country passed a ban on full face coverings in public places, with no exceptions made for Muslims who wear the burka.
Although all of these restrictions, including the burkini ban, have been passed under the premise that they will increase young Muslims’ public interactions — essentially, “freeing” them from their oppressive religious habits — they have had the opposite effect. In 2014, The Guardian published a report documenting several Muslim women’s decisions to turn to online retail, after France’s new laws made traditional work environments hostile. Hijab Glam’s Magali Meignen told the newspaper that conducting business in the digital realm was not entirely a free choice:
If society didn’t reject us, we could really flourish … This way we’re a bit isolated. But whatever we do, our image won’t change. And yet we’re contributing to society, paying tax. But as we are hidden away, no one will know.
Meanwhile, police forces in Canada and Scotland have changed uniform requirements to allow Muslim officers to wear their hijabs on duty, should they so desire.
Anti-Muslim sentiment is so rife in France that even Prime Minister Manuel Valls feels comfortable likening the burkini to “enslavement.” The Conseil d’État, France’s top administrative court, overturned burkini bans around the country, concluding that they violated basic personal freedoms. Local mayors, however, have continued to enforce their bans, using the same logic as P.M. Valls: that a burkini signifies an oppressed and abused woman in need of protecting.
However, when women from other religions wear similar attire to the beach, they are not accosted by law enforcement. Orthodox Jewish women wear the same sort of loose-fitting clothing and head coverings when they visit the seaside. In the U.S., the women of the conservative Christian Duggar family wear swimsuit dresses that hardly cover less than a burkini. After opponents of the ban began to share images of fully-covered nuns frolicking on French beaches, Nice Deputy Mayor Rudy Salles confirmed to BBC Radio 4’s Edward Stourton that their outfits were also unfit, in his view, for waterfront activities:
What is the burkini? There is bikini and there is burka and the burka is forbidden. When you go to the beach you wear a bathing suit. You don’t go to the beach as you want. If I want to go on the beach naked it’s forbidden — I cannot.
Deputy Mayor Salles has evidently forgotten that nude beaches — on the Riviera, in particular — have been a staple in his country for decades.
France’s burkini bans are just another face of systemic patriarchy, in which men tell women that they know what is best for them. Speaking with CNN, Cogolin Mayor Marc Etienne Lansade — who is also part of the far-right National Front Party — had the audacity to suggest that Muslim women don’t wear burkinis “because they want to — but because they have to.” Mayor Lansade went on to declare that French lawmakers “have to protect those people.” Provence-Alpes Côte d’Azur Regional Councilman Christian Estrosi issued a statement in response to the Conseil d’État’s overturn of the discriminatory law, saying:
Wearing an outfit that fully covers the body to go to a beach does not correspond to our vision of living together, particularly with regard to the equality of men and women.
The position these men put forth boils down to this: “We must free women from an oppressive religion that dictates what they may wear, by dictating what they may wear.”
In fact, the burkini ban is more oppressive than a religious modesty code, which women may tailor as they wish to fit their lives. France’s Islamophobia has created a hostile environment that forces women to undress themselves in public or face penalties under the law. The argument could even be made that, by criminalizing women’s modesty, the coastal towns’ laws pander to the male gaze.
Everyone should be incensed over France’s burkini bans. Not only do they fly directly in the face of liberty, equality, and fraternity, they disproportionately target Muslim women. Burkini ban enforcement neither liberates nor protects these women; it humiliates them.