The Conseil d’Etat might have overthrown the burkini ban but the debate rumbles on.
Despite the ruling of the Conseil d’Etat (France’s supreme court for administrative justice) on 26th August that the ban on wearing burkinis in public in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet should be suspended, mayors in cities such as Nice, Cannes and Sisco have vouched to maintain a hard-line against “beachwear that ostentatiously displays religious affiliation” (une tenue de plage manifestant de manière ostentatoire une appartenance religieuse).
In the wake of the ruling, Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve called a meeting about the status of Islam in France. Cazeneuve, who is against the ban, urged that “France is now more than ever in need of a peaceful relationship with Muslims” (la France a plus que jamais besoin d’une relation apaisée avec les musulmans).
The fallout from the burkini ban has been causing waves not only in France but across the Continent. But have external condemnations and accusations of prejudice been too harsh?
A manifestation of French laïcité?
First and foremost, the burkini ban has to be seen in the French context. Whilst similar measures in other Western democracies would bear the hallmark of right-wing extremists, in Oye-Plages near Cannes, it was a Socialist mayor who sought to ban the burkini. France’s very strict rules on laïcité coupled with a very disturbing wave of Islamic-motivated terrorist attacks over the past year might cause us to soften our view on the matter.
France’s 1905 law separating the church and the state has formed the basis of French actions towards religion ever since. The controversial ban on wearing the burqa or the niqab in public places, justified on the grounds that showing one’s face in public is a fundamental part of living together in society, was passed in 2010. So is the current burkini ban just an extension of the ban on the burqa?
There’s at least one reason why it’s certainly not. A confusion of terminology has led to an outfit which scarcely resembles the long, dark, face-shielding, head-to-toe veils which are the object of the 2010 ban being seen in the same way. The misleadingly-named burkini might better be dubbed Al-Amirakini or the Hijabini but Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, who owns the trademarks of the words Burkini and Burqini, clearly had poetics rather than politics on the mind at the point of conception.
Lots of the photos we’re being confronted with in the media show colourful, wetsuit-style outfits with water-proof headscarves which leave the face fully exposed. This surely undermines the argument forwarded by many that the burkini ban is simply an extension of the burqa ban.
Emancipation for women
Is wanting to dress modestly at the beach really such a bad thing? It seems that it is if you’re Muslim. Why should it be that dressing modestly at the beach should be acceptable if you wish to wear a kaftan, a salwar kameez, or even a body-covering catholic habit, but not if you wish to actually go in the water or wear beachware associated with Islam.
Oppression of women in any form certainly has no place in 21st century Western democracies but at some point, enforced emancipation steps on the toes of freedom. The well-versed counter argument is that creating modest swimwear appropriate for Muslim women gives them more freedom, by allowing them to undertake that activity that the majority takes for granted, namely swimming in public.
Is it not a little patronising of the French, and others who hold the view, to tell women what they can and can’t wear? Whilst such bans in favour of the emancipation of women may just about hold for the burqa and niqab, the more extreme ends of Muslim dress code, applying the same logic to the Burkini seems to be flawed.
The fact of the matter is, burkinis are not being banned because of a desire to suddenly emancipate Muslim women. No, they’re being banned on the basis that they might lead to terrorism. As the mayor of Nice finely put it, the ban covered “Clothing that overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks.” If this isn’t prejudice, then I’ll eat my headscarf.
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For more on Europe and Islam, read Sabine Volk’s fascinating piece on European right-wing rhetoric here
To learn about recent terrorist attacks in Europe, read Eric Hartshorne’s brilliantly concise history of terrorism here