A new aspect of Islamic life is under attack in France following recent acts of terror – the burkini. Often worn by Muslim women, the burkini is a swimsuit that covers the entire body, except for the hands, face, and feet, and allows women to go to the beach while still maintaining a modest appearance. In France, however, this freedom to cover up was recently threatened when the burkini was banned on French beaches. The ban arose shortly after the horrifying terror attack in Nice this past July on Bastille Day. The attack was one of many committed by Islamic terror groups in Europe in the last few months. In the aftermath of these attacks, Islam as a whole and innocent Muslims in Europe have been frequently targeted, as seen through consistently hateful rhetoric and, most recently in France, the burkini ban.
This is not the first time that France has restricted Muslim women from dressing how they want – burqas have been banned in public since 2010 and hijabs have been banned in public schools since 2004. This past summer, the city of Cannes was first to institute the burkini ban, after which nearly 30 other towns followed. David Lisnard, the mayor of Cannes, defended the ban, saying that the burkini was a sign of Islamic extremism. Prime Minister Manuel Valls echoed this idea, claiming that the burkini was a symbol of the “enslavement of women.” Furthermore, the administrative court that administered the ban said it fell within the 2004 law that banned religious symbols in public spaces. However, it is difficult to find any other religion that has had their religious symbols similarly attacked.
Officials defended the decision in France by claiming that it was an attempt to maintain a secular France, raising the question of whether this type of ban will be applied consistently across religions in the country. Shortly after the ban was enacted, a picture of nuns in habits on a beach in France went viral. Though these women were also wearing religious clothing that covered their body, no attempt has been made to ban their attire, suggesting that the religious coverings ban severely discriminates against Muslim women, who comprise half of France’s largest religious minority.
The ban has understandably incited much controversy around the world, especially among Muslim women. For many, covering up is a part of their religious practice, and they believe that they should have the freedom to choose how to dress. This is seen widely as an Islamophobic attack, especially after photos arose of officers confronting a woman on the beach and forcing her to remove her clothing or leave. The ticket that woman received said that she was not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.” Though France may be a secular country, the idea that wearing an Islamic piece of clothing constitutes bad morals is at the heart of Islamophobia.
The greatest irony here is that the men in these situations are telling women that they must be free while simultaneously limiting how they can express that freedom. Politicians, like Prime Minister Valls, who say that women do not have to cover up because they are free, are also conveying through these laws they do not get the choice to cover up. This rhetoric characterizing Muslim women as oppressed or enslaved is deeply offensive, as it implies a lack of agency among Muslim women to make their own choices. For many women, modesty is a choice, based entirely on an individual desire to cover their bodies in public and not, as many European politicians suggest, a mandate being imposed upon them against their will.
And France’s highest administrative court agreed – though France may be a secular country, its 1905 constitution protects freedom of religion and of expression, which this ban clearly violated. Consequently, the ban was overturned in early September. However, as we see discrimination continue, it is clear that the controversy did not end with the overturn of the ban. Just recently, an Australian woman was chased off a beach in France after the repeal of the ban, and many areas in the country continue to keep the ban in place.
With the initial implementation of the ban, French officials created a divide between Muslim women and the rest of the population. Rather than accusing a piece of clothing of being a symbol of extremism, perhaps the solution is to educate the public on the basic pillars of Islam and the definition of the phrase “freedom of expression”. The terror attacks in Nice and Paris are deplorable, and the threat of terror by ISIS and other extremist groups is real. However, blaming a religion of 1.6 billion people for the acts of a few – and banning core peaceful expressions of their faith – does little to solve the problem and creates far more division. As we see misunderstandings and division grow throughout the world, it is the job of our governments to promote equal treatment and greater understanding within their countries.