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France, secularism and a banned bathing suit

Image credit: Huffington Post Deutschland
Image credit: Huffington Post Deutschland
Image credit: Huffington Post Deutschland

The ban of the burqini in France, a form of swimwear designed for Muslim women, has prompted a large discussion about religious freedom, secularism and the involvement of the state in policing the affairs of women. 

France has a long, proud history of secularism in its society, emerging most prominently in the 1789 Revolution. The French Church and State are clearly separated and religion is often kept away from schools. But secularism in France today does not focus so much on keeping religion out of political discourse. It has evolved into a struggle of ethnicities and their religious roots. French secularism now strives to unite the population under shared values – liberty, equality and fraternity, as the old revolutionary values go, but also, more specifically, the freedom of religious practice and the freedom of speech. In short, the French state likes to defend the ‘French way’ of going about things.

France is also reeling from a string of terrorist atrocities within its borders. Last month, eighty-four people were killed in Nice by a man who stole a truck and drove it down the promenade into crowds celebrating Bastille Day. Twelve days later, an elderly priest was killed in Rouen when two men stormed his church. Memories of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack resonate in French society. In most cases, the perpetrators of these crimes have sworn their allegiance to the Islamic State. Arguably in response, the French government has taken an even sterner approach to Islam.

The mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, made the first ban against burkinis. On the 15th, a similar ban came into place in Villeneuve-Loubet and in Corsica, following violence in the streets involving “hatchets and harpoons.” The burqini is an unhygienic mode of dress, one mayor adds. French swimming pools have some of the strictest clothing rules in Europe. Many male holidaymakers from the UK and the United States have been turned away from French pools due to their baggy board shorts not meeting pool hygiene standards. The French prefer men to wear “briefs” – ‘Speedos’ to most Britons – arguing that large shorts are often worn all day and can bring all manner of dirt and perspiration into the clean water.

But dismissing the burqini as unhygienic looks like a diversion. The French authorities argue that the burqini is not only a reflection of a backward time where women’s bare bodies were permitted only to be seen by their husbands, but a nod to religious fundamentalism. The official ruling prohibits clothing that offends “good morals and secularism.” Lisnard dubbed the burqini a “uniform” of Islamic extremism. Opposition to the burqini has very little to do with hygiene in reality; regrettably, this is a clash of cultures: French secularism, gauged by the religious motivations of terrorists in their atrocities against France, against religious expression, specifically the expression of Islamic faith – Lisnard clarified to the press that expressions of Jewish and Christian faith are tolerated. Despite a French commitment to freedom of religion, Islam is clearly treated differently to other faiths in France.

Ordinary Muslim women, wanting only to enjoy a day at the beach with their friends and their children, will bear the brunt of these new bans. Many do not see anything wrong with the burqini. Some feel that their freedom to choose their own clothing is being infringed. Why should the state dictate what is acceptable to wear in public?

This is far beyond what is acceptable at the beach. In March this year a top French fashion designer criticised clothing designers using Islamic designs, saying that they were taking part in the enslavement of women. Female Muslim beachgoers are unlikely to have anything to do with Islamic extremism, let alone the affairs and values of the Islamic State. But French authorities want to remove Islamic symbols from public view: a colleague of Lisnard’s criticised burqinis as “ostentatious clothing which refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements.” As Remona Ali writes for the Guardian, “Who knew that a little trip to [the] M&S swimwear department could result in a terrorist purchase?” The effects of these bans show a wide, suspicious attitude toward Islam in France, something that has been growing for quite some time.