The coerced removal of the burkini by the French police symbolizes perhaps one of the most misguided attempts to “combat Islamic radicalism.” What stands out from the controversy is many French mayors’ hardline defense of the burkini ban, despite the ruling against the prohibition by the Conseil d’État, the highest administrative court in the country. While the ban spurred vehement criticism from outside France, the fact that the mayors can vilify the burkini so unabashedly, as instruments of female oppression, speaks to the place of Muslims in French society. In a sense, the burkini ban is “a logical extension of France’s law against full-face coverings, particularly the kind worn by some Muslim women.” Under President Nicolas Sarkozy, France was the first European country to adopt a law prohibiting the complete covering of one’s face in public. Although the law applies to scarves, masks and motorcycle helmets, many Muslims in France felt targeted, considering that fewer than 2,000 women—most of them Muslim converts in France—wore full-face veils at the time it went into effect.
The common argument that burkinis should not be worn because of public security reasons lacks legitimacy, as the same line of logic should outlaw any article of clothing that hinders proper identification. The ban would only be valid if things like Halloween masks, surgical masks, hockey masks, balaclavas, or ski masks were also prohibited in public settings outside of their specific work related uses. But the French mayors, as did supporters of the 2010 law against complete facial coverage, have advanced a more principled objection to the burkini as a threat to laïcité: the uniquely French ideology of secularism in public affairs. During the French revolution, the laïcité grew out of the popular desire to dismantle the Catholic Church in France along with the monarchy. Throughout the early twentieth-century, the concept served to protect the government from the influence of the Catholic Church. The vision of a unified “peuple français,” a republic that embodies values of fraternity and egalitarianism, has its roots in this principle as well. In everyday life, the observance of laïcité means no public praying or utterances of “God bless France” by political figures.
However, the French government’s efforts to champion this Holy Grail principle have hindered Muslim communities’ ability to practice their religion in France. For example, the French Assembly voted to ban all conspicuous religious symbols in public schools in 2004, including headscarves, Jewish kippot, and large Christian crosses. While in theory the policy is uniformly applicable to all faiths, in reality it affected some more than others, including many Muslim women who consider wearing the veil in public spaces to be important expressions of religious and cultural identity or a means of re-appropriating the feminine body. In 2015, a New York Times project asked its Muslim women readers what the headscarf symbolized for them; some of the responses included Hareem Mannan’s statement, “Hijab is a constant reminder to me that I do not live for this world alone, that my actions will always speak to something greater,” and Att Yusof’s, “I choose to veil because in veiling, it gives me peace. A spiritual peace.” To Muslim residents of France, the 2004 ban’s implicit stigmatization of Muslim practices and the overt bias of the facial covering ban sound like injunctions to abandon their religion. Although the original spirit of laïcité called for the separation of church and state, the focus of this mission has shifted to Islam.
The forced burkini removal in Nice comes not only amidst a trend towards an increasingly restrictive interpretation of laïcité since the Charlie Hebdo shooting, but also at the peak of social hostility against Muslims. Recent terrorist attacks have created a climate where it is acceptable to outright tell a Muslim to “go back home,” or for workplaces to ban veils. In public schools, outward displays of faiths other than Islam, such as small crosses or Stars of David in accessories or clothing printed with scenes from the Bible, would never be subject to removal. This inconsistency alone shows that protection of secularism is an excuse for restrictions on supposedly “Muslim” attire, and especially so in non-public schools settings like the beach.
Islamophobic sentiments are embedded in various mayoral decrees that purportedly ban “beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation,” in the name of preserving public order, hygiene, and French laws on secularism. Both these mayoral opinions, and Prime Minister Valls’ claim that the burkini is “an expression of a political project, a counter-society, based notably on the enslavement of women” criminalize the garment, willfully ignoring its actual utility. Aheda Zanetti, the Australian designer who created the burkini, clarified that she intended the outfit to be modest yet able to accommodate an active, sporty lifestyle. She proceeded to explain that the burkini was meant to allow Muslim women to participate in activities without relinquishing religious needs. The burkini is no different from other non-traditional swimwear providing more coverage, other than that it takes into account Muslim women’s desire to dress modestly accordance to their faith The clothing sounds more religious than it is, as Zanetti stated, “When I named it the burkini I didn’t really think it was a burqa for the beach. Burqa was just a word for me—I’d been brought up in Australia all my life, and I’d designed this swimsuit and I had to call it something quickly.”
But even if one were to characterize the burkini primarily as a religious symbol, calling the swimsuit a “the uniform of extremist Islamism, not of the Muslim religion” commits the fatal error of equating radicalized Islam to Islam itself. Reviling the burkini stamps the women who wear them as terrorists, leading them to demand their right to wear them—a right that they should not have to fight for. Just as many Muslim women living in the suburbs have chosen to wear niqabs as an act of defiance following the 2010 ban, women who wear the burkinis despite mayor-sanctioned bans are now likely to be seen as subversive and excessively religious.
The burkini ban has intensified, not alleviated, feelings of estrangement and discontent among French Muslims, and perhaps made anti-Western, even radical, beliefs more attractive. Irrational crackdowns on allegedly religious symbols feeds into ISIS’ propagandistic narrative about the Western world’s war against Muslims, especially since banning the burkini generalizes all Muslim worshippers as proponents of jihadist ideologies. A new study by the Brookings Institution’s Will McCants and Chris Meserole, which looked at data on people from around the world who have traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq, also suggests that curtailing religious freedom of Muslims renders them more vulnerable to radicalization. The study results showed that francophone countries are more likely to produce jihadists; those who leave to fight in Syria and Iraq tended to be French-speaking, or heavily influenced by French language and culture. Saying that some cultures or policies are more “responsible” for growing ISIS membership may not necessarily make them more culpable for terrorism. Yet the francophone findings support the absurdity of policing a fashion that aligns with Muslim customs lest it exacerbates the growth of Islamic extremism.
The burkini suggested a way for Muslim women to insert themselves into the French mainstream culture of relaxing at beaches, while still holding on to their religious identity. Religious observance and patriotism should not have to be mutually exclusive. If laïcité did not discriminate between faiths, demanding the removal of religion from the public sphere could arguably legitimize the burkini ban, although such a wholesale prohibition of religious signs would put the principle of läicité itself into question. Convicting Muslim women of advancing a terrorist agenda through their way of dress is the worst thing that the French government could do to foster a sense of national loyalty in them. The French symbol Marianne, with her breasts exposed in most iconic portrayals, is an allegory of liberty, not a literal suggestion that women who show more skin are freer. Oftentimes, being pressured to reveal more or worse, being stripped of the freedom to wear what one wants, is the real cause of female oppression. Muslim feminist Maryam’s statement echoes this denunciation of the burkini ban: “you can support a woman’s decision to wear exposing clothing while simultaneously supporting a woman’s decision to dress modestly. These are both forms of empowerment and to deny one or the other is counter to feminism.”