Wielding Power over Women’s Bodies: The Burkini Ban in France

by Khalid Albaih, Sudan

by Khalid Albaih, Sudan

Scanning newspapers from August 2016, readers could easily assume that the burkini had invaded the beaches of France. Summer may now be over, but the stir caused by the banning of the full-body, head-covering swimsuit has morphed into a heated debate on women’s rights, secularism and assimilation.

France has been battling for years to come to terms with the growing visibility of Islam and the transition to a multi-cultural society. The trauma and concerns arising from the recent terrorist attacks (the Charlie Hebdo attack of January 2015, Paris attacks of November 2015, and Nice attack of July 2016) that have struck the country have further polarised an already divided population, with the Muslim minority being increasingly treated as a suspect community.

Their bodies, dress and social behaviour have been exploited and co-opted to serve identity politics, as if the burkini is the only way to determine women’s attachment to national values or belonging to the Muslim community.

The origins of the burkini saga can be traced back to Mayor David Lisnard’s decision to outlaw “inappropriate clothing” on the beaches of the resort town of Cannes, with violators of the ban facing a €38 fine. While the ban immediately sparked conflicting reactions, several coastal cities in France followed suit, further inflaming tensions.

Adopted shortly after the Bastille Day attack that claimed the lives of 85 people in nearby Nice, the controversial decree was introduced by municipal authorities as a preventive measure to safeguard public order, secularism and “good morals.” Called to rule on the ban, France’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, overturned one of the town’s decrees, finding that the ban violated civil liberties, including freedom of movement and religion. This ruling, however, did not put an end to the controversy as opposing parties stood firm on their position, holding ground in the name of defending the French ideal of secularism (laïcité).

Enshrined in national law in 1905, the principle of French secularism is founded upon the key principles of strict separation of Church and State and freedom of religion. It sought to free citizens from the influence of the Church by relegating religion to the private sphere, while guaranteeing individuals the right to exercise their faith.

Referring to a strict understanding of secularism that seeks to expunge all religious expressions from public view, proponents of the ban firmly condemn the wearing of the burkini as an unwelcomed display of the Muslim faith in the public sphere. Some even take the argument one step further by challenging the compatibility of Islam with “French values.”

Opponents, on the contrary, denounce a twisted and politicised interpretation of secularism meant to turn the principle into an instrument to regulate and police the behaviour of Muslim communities in France. They insist that the law is one of compromise and non-discrimination, conceived to guarantee the freedom of conscience and religion for all, including Muslims.

Beyond secularism, the burkini debate is also about feminism and women’s rights. It is argued that allowing the burkini tacitly endorses the repression of women by making the State complicit in the promotion of a radical version of Islam, or Wahhabism, which believes that women must be subjugated in public.

This is the stand taken by several members of the current ruling government of France (Socialist Party). “The burkini carries a particular vision of the place of the woman. It cannot be considered only a question of fashion or individual liberty,” said Laurence Rossignol, Minister for Women Affairs.

In a similar manner, the Prime Minister of France, Manuel Valls, describes the burkini as provocative and archaic. “The burkini is not a new range of swimwear... It is an expression of a political project, a counter-culture, notably based on the enslavement of women,” he said. (5)This position, however, is far from having support. Opponents criticise the burkini ban as a highly misogynistic measure against the very basis of the right to free choice. They claim that women should have the power to make decisions regarding their own bodies, and dress according to their personal beliefs. For them, the rights of women include the ‘right to cover.’ Further, the ban is not only unnecessary, but also counter-productive. Outlawing modest clothing would not emancipate women but instead add to their oppression by limiting their access to beaches and public facilities they might have visited otherwise. “Ultimately, the burkini ban and the media frenzy around it is indicative of much deeper issues. It reflects the inherent tension between liberal values perceived as constitutive of the national identity, and tolerance for those who may have different views.”

The burkini debate reveals France’s incapacity to adapt to a multi-cultural society – which includes the largest Muslim population in Europe – and exposes the country’s deep-seated discomfort with the visible presence of Islam.

In the context of recent terror attacks, Islamophobia has been on the rise in France, with the Muslim minority being increasingly side-lined and stigmatised. One year before the presidential elections set to occur in May 2017 and in the face of the rise of the Front National (France’s far- right, nationalist party), politicians have been quick to exploit people’s fears for partisan ends.

The controversy also mirrors the recurrent temptation to legislate and regulate women’s bodies – as if their hair, arms or legs were the symbolic embodiment of national values. Throughout history, women have been forced to dress or undress depending on the changing needs of power-holders.

In the case of the burkini, women are once again seen as unable to regulate their own appearance. This situation is unfortunate. We might hope that in contemporary France, women would be able to make their own choices rather than forced to comply with the norms that others impose on them, be they from State or religious actors.

It does not mean, however, that the symbolic nature of the burkini as a tool of oppression and embodiment of the struggle of millions of women –for whom wearing a burkini is not a matter of choice– should be ignored. It is indeed ironic that the burkini in France has become an icon representing resistance to authority and a symbol of freedom. We should not be fooled. The burkini is not, as it is sometimes described, empowering Muslim women. On the contrary, it reflects the increasing pressure put on Muslim women worldwide to embrace conservative interpretations of Islam. The burkini ban exposes yet another attempt to make women’s bodies the predominant feature shaping their identity and humanity.

However, as understandable as opposing the burkini can be, it should be done in a way that does not deprive women of their power of choice. It is indeed contradictory to denounce the burkini as a coercive instrument designed to hide and control women’s bodies, while using similar methods to force women to conform to the norms that are deemed socially acceptable by the majority.

We should also avoid the temptation to blame burkini-wearing women in France for harming the interests of those around the world whose right to ‘uncover’ is denied. Let’s resist the inclination to use these women as scapegoats for France’s difficulties to integrate its Muslim population, and for the perpetuation of repressive and patriarchal systems elsewhere in the world. The problems to be tackled in relation to women’s rights, religious fundamentalism and societal integration are far bigger than the issue of the burkini in France.

From Women in Islam Issue 3 (2017)