Perhaps, nothing summed up the absurdity of the situation more than the photograph that went viral on social media, of armed French policemen standing around a woman on a beach in Nice, ordering her to remove her tunic in conformity with the burkini ban in force in approximately 30 French towns. International outrage and indignation was swift, with condemnations of France’s pretensions to being the land of liberty, equality and fraternity.
In France, however, the opposition to the banning of the burkini, a full-body swimsuit that leaves only the face, hands and feet visible, was less equivocal. In a poll commissioned by the national daily, Le Figaro, nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of French people supported the beach rule, 30 per cent were indifferent and a mere six per cent were against it — astonishing statistics for a country that views itself as a defender of women’s rights.
On August 23, a judge in Nice declared the burkini ban a “necessary, appropriate and proportionate” measure and ruled that the garment could potentially be perceived as a “provocation exacerbating tensions” at a time when the country was under a state of emergency, following a series of attacks by Islamic terrorists. However, France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d’Etat, suspended the ban three days later, ruling it as a “serious and blatantly illegal infringement of fundamental freedoms” and declared that mayors can only restrict individual liberties in cases of “proven risks” to public law and order. Though the suspension applies only to the small French riviera town of Villeneuve-Loubet, it establishes a legal precedent for the other towns where the ban is in place.
Approving the court’s decision, Catherine Clément, renowned philosopher, writer and artist, told The Indian Express, “The evil force of the anti-Muslim rumour doing the rounds has been destroyed by the force of the law that is absolute and applies equally to all”.
Nevertheless, several mayors were quick to say they would continue to enforce the ban, and book and fine burkini-clad women — but there is, actually, no mention of the burkini in the ban. The rules only state that beachwear must be respectful of good public manners and the principle of secularism. Caroline Laurent, a PhD student of French and Francophone literature, declared her incomprehension at the ban and the link with secularism. “A beach is a public space to be shared by all, where people are free to wear whatever they want. Why is it acceptable for an overweight woman to swim wearing clothes that cover the body but not for a woman to do it on religious grounds,” she says.
Muslims, naturally, feel unfairly singled out. Municipal officials have denied that the ban targets the wearing of religious symbols on the beach, though Thierry Migoule, director-general of municipal services for Cannes admitted to AFP that the objective is to prohibit “ostentatious outfits that are a reminder of allegiance to terrorist movements that have declared war on us.” Linking a bathing suit worn by Muslim women to a terrorist threat insidiously lends credence to all the commonly held specious views of Muslims and makes a mockery of all the innocent Muslims who have been killed in terrorist attacks.
As it is, the debate on secularism or laïcité in France is a deeply polarising one. In 2004, France adopted a controversial law banning the “wearing of conspicuous religious symbols” like hijabs, large crosses, turbans, kippas, etc in public schools. The partisans of the law interpret laïcité to mean “religious neutrality”, whereas its opponents interpret it to mean full freedom to practice one’s religion in the public space and view the law as impinging on the fundamental right of freedom of worship. Laïcité being a core value of the French republic, the rejection of the majoritarian interpretation by a minority has been conflictual. In 2010, a law was passed banning full-face coverings like niqabs and burqas in public, essentially for security reasons, but further hurting Muslim sentiments.
The offending garment that was designed by an Australian Muslim woman to empower her orthodox compatriots and bring them into public spaces like the beach or community pools by allowing them to swim, participate in water sports and even become lifeguards, has been variously perceived as a form of “enslavement” (Manuel Valls, French prime minister) or as “a political, militant act” (Nicolas Sarkozy, former president). The dangerous conflation of an innocuous garment with terrorist attacks has only served to raise the hackles of the Muslim community and alienate them even more.
Sophie Bastide-Foltz, a literary translator based in Uzès in the south of France, is both against the burkini ban as well as for it. “The ban does not solve the problem of the presence of political Islam in the public sphere, an Islam that is no longer religious and that does not hide its ambition of conquering Europe, if not the world,” she says. However, she says that it is “inadmissible, for a woman in France, to be reduced to just her gender” and be obliged to hide her femininity because “men are incapable of exercising self-control”. “What explains the development of this new fashion, if it isn’t the desire to test the capacity of our societies to resist the intimidations of radical Islam?” says Bastide-Foltz. According to her, the “fight against the rise of Islam has to be carried out through education”.
“The way we are now talking about Muslims, women in particular, is linked to French colonialism and our past way of controlling the bodies of the Other. Not much has changed, it’s a similar rhetoric that needs to be deconstructed and examined; we need to talk about it,” says Laurent.
Radha Kapoor-Sharma is a Paris-based writer.