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Burkinis beached in France

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This outfit of Muslim women and the saree have been banned on the country’s beaches. Is this an Islamophobic piece of legislation or a battle pitch for the next elections?

By Sajeda Momin in London

There is no dress code for women on Indian beaches. They can wear whatever they feel comfortable in—shorts, salwar suits, sarees, bikinis or burkinis. They can bare as much or as little skin without breaking any laws. However, this is no longer the case in France, which considers itself the world leader in upholding civil liberties and freedoms!

Bodies lie on the ground on July 15, 2016 after at least 30 people were killed in Nice, France, when a truck ran into a crowd celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday. Photo: UNI 
Bodies lie on the ground on July 15, 2016 after at least 30 people were killed in Nice, France, when a truck ran into a crowd celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday. Photo: UNI 

Over the last couple of weeks, 15 French coastal towns and resorts have banned women wearing outfits that show too little skin while sitting or strolling on their famous beaches or swimming in their clear, blue waters. While the ban is meant to target women wearing burkinis—a loose swimsuit that is similar to a wet suit used by deep-sea divers that covers the whole body—sarees have also been banned as beach wear.

HEFTY FINE

The ordinances brought in by the mayor of each town bars women from entering or swimming at the city’s public beaches in attire that is not “respectful of good morals and secularism” and that does not “respect rules of hygiene and security”. Offenders risk a fine of Euros 38 (approx `2,890), and so far, three women have been fined in Cannes, one of the first French resorts to pass the ordinance. Ironically, the burkini is accused of being disrespectful of “good morals and secularism”, while the saree does not respect “rules of hygiene and security”!

Over the last couple of weeks, 15 French coastal towns and resorts have banned women wearing outfits that show too little skin while sitting or strolling on their famous beaches or swimming in their clear, blue waters.

Though the advocates of the new beach dress code are trying very hard to show the ban on the modest burkini or the humble saree as a protective measure in the interest of the wearer, it has come under world-wide criticism for being a misogynistic, racist and Islamophobic piece of legislation. The ordinances, which are to run until August 31, claim that “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” and hence the ban.

burkinis

“If a woman goes swimming in a burkini, that could draw a crowd and disrupt public order. It is precisely to protect these women that I took this decision. The burkini is the uniform of extremist Islamism, not of the Muslim religion,” said David Lisnard, Mayor of Cannes, as he announced the ban. He also added that the measure could apply to women wearing a “traditional Indian saree because such a garment could hamper rescue efforts in the water”.

Neither burkinis nor sarees are particularly common on French beaches, and critics argue that the bans are simply a knee-jerk reaction to the attack last month in Nice by a Tunisian truck driver which claimed 85 lives and the murder of a Catholic priest on the altar of his church in Normandy, both by men who claimed allegiance to the IS.

LEGAL ACTION

The Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) was “shocked” by Lisnard’s arguments and filed a legal complaint against the ordinance. “Must we remind this mayor that about 30 of the victims of the attack in Nice were Muslims, because terrorism targets us all indiscriminately,” said CCIF in a statement. The row over Muslim women’s beach wear had erupted earlier in 2014 when the municipality of Wissous in the southern suburb of Paris banned headscarves at an urban beach. CCIF challenged the ban in court and won. When Wissous reinstated the ban, CCIF successfully challenged it a second time.

The burkini is accused of being disrespectful of “good morals and secularism”, while the saree does not respect “rules of hygiene and security”!

However, the story is very different in 2016. CCIF was joined by the League for Human Rights to challenge the ban in Nice too, but the courts upheld the bans arguing they were in accordance with the first articles of the constitution—that France is a Republique Laique (Secular Republic).

burkinis1

The French principle of laicite or secularism is different from what it means in India. In France, laicite means the complete separation between the state and religious institutions, whereby the government stays out of religion and religion stays away from the state. It was this same principle that first banned the wearing of overt religious symbols in public primary and secondary schools in France since 2004. This means Sikh turbans, Jewish kippa, large crosses and Muslim women’s hijab cannot be worn in government-run schools. The same rule applies to anyone who works for the French government where all signs of religious practice are prohibited.

When it comes to implementing the ordinances, there is no legal definition of what qualifies as a burkini, and Muslim women have already complained that they are being singled out on beaches even when they are not wearing burkinis.

However, Islam is the second-most widely professed religion in France after Catholicism and such measures impact the Muslim community more overtly than other minorities. In 2010, the French parliament approved a law banning burqa in public citing public safety as the reason. And now comes the ban on the burkini, another item of Muslim women’s clothing. Herve Lavasse, secretary of the Cannes-Grasse League of Human Rights points out that laicite guarantees to every citizen a free conscience and freedom of religious expression which these clothing codes are contradicting. “Do we want a fashion militia?” he asks. Warning that the bans “are a perfect recruiter for radicalization,” he asks, “how can we not fear that with attitudes as exclusivist and repressive as these, many of our compatriots will feel excluded?”

LEGAL DEFINITIONS

When it comes to implementing the ordinances, there is no legal definition of what qualifies as a burkini, and Muslim women have already complained that they are being singled out on beaches even when they are not wearing burkinis. “One was wearing a long-sleeve T-shirt and pants with a headscarf and another was wearing an actual competition bathing suit like they wear in the Olympics and a bathing cap and she was taken off the beach” said Marwan Muhammad, executive director of CCIF. However “her mother was wearing a headscarf and enjoying a picnic on the beach” which was enough to give her away as a Muslim and cause local officials to ask her to leave.

With the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for next spring, French politicians seems to be vying for the most right-wing spot and in the bargain, playing on the fear of Islam to promote themselves

Although politicians cite laicite as a reason for prohibiting Islamic and other religious attire, Nicolas Cadene, the spokesman for the government’s Observatory on Laicite argues that it is incorrect. “During crises, there are crises of passion, of looking to your own experiences, of retreating, of rising fear. One must not overreach in such a climate. We need to calm down the situation. One should not exploit laicite for partisan ends and to stigmatize people,” said Cadene. But French politicians are not listening.

FRENCH POLLS

A woman in saree. Photo: UNI
A woman in saree. Photo: UNI

With the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for next spring, French politicians seems to be vying for the most right-wing spot and in the bargain, playing on the fear of Islam to promote themselves. The burkini, said Socialist French prime minister Manuel Valls, is no longer just a swimsuit but a “provocation” that is based on the “enslavement of women”. Laurence Rossignol, a feminist and Socialist minister for families, children and women’s rights called the burkini “profoundly archaic” and a garment with the deeper meaning “to conceal women’s bodies”. But what she couldn’t see was that the ban was taking away the woman’s right to wear what she wants. Expectedly, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme-right National Front went even further and saw in the burkini the fight for the “soul of France”. “France does not lock away a woman’s body,” wrote Le Pen in her blog.

There is little doubt that politics, cultural prejudices and latent fear are fuelling the debate in France and women’s bodies are being used to score points. The burkini has become a weapon not for the fight for the soul of France, but for the battle for the next elected government of the country. Irrespective of who wins the election, the loser will be women in general and Muslim women in particular as they have lost the right to decide what they wish to wear on French beaches.

Lead Picture: (L-R) Women in burkinis. Photo: Youtube

 

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