Burkini: Liberation by Oppression or Oppression by Liberation?

A woman on holiday is publicly confronted by locals and forced to leave the beach, another is confronted by state officials in a public place and forced to change her clothing, while others are fined for failing to wear ‘an appropriate outfit’. Unimaginable in a country like France? No. Such instances have been happening on beaches in the French Riviera for months now. Last August, the media was filled with coverage of the burkini ban that around 30 cities on the Riviera adopted. Soon after, the highest court of France ruled that the ban “illegally […] breached fundamental freedoms.” The majority of the towns, however, refused to lift the ban. The reasoning of the ban supporters varies, but it is often talked about as an issue of public security, as people refer to the burkini as a symbol of Islamic extremism. It has been seen as a provocation in the light of the Nice attack and the church killing in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray and as a symbol of oppression. The ban is often addressed in context of the French secularist law, called ‘laïcité,’ that separates the church from the state. Evidently, the main argument against it is that it is purely Islamophobic and fails to accommodate for the human rights of many beach goers, especially because it is difficult to define what the burkini is.

A woman wearing a burkini while visiting a beach in Amasra, Turkey, with her family, by Charles Roffey

The burkini (or burquini), a portmanteau of the words burqa and bikini, was invented by Australian-Lebanese designer Aheda Zanetti in 2004. It is a swimming suit that covers the whole body except the face, the hands, and the feet, while also being light enough for swimming, and is intended to be in accord with Islamic traditions. Zanetti’s intention was to give Muslim women the freedom to be able to swim publicly and participate in sports. She owns the trademarks to both the words ‘burkini’ and ‘burqini’, but they have become generic terms for similar forms of swimwear, which calls into question how we can ban something that we cannot properly define. Moreover, the burkini is not all that different stylistically from the wetsuits used by scuba divers, surfers, and long distance swimmers. In addition, about 40% of Zanetti’s customers are not Muslim. The outfit has been popular in Israel among the Orthodox Jewish, in certain Asian countries where pale skin is considered desirable, and amongst Mormons, Hindus, Christians, and women and men with different body issues. Those who are not wearing it because of their Islamic beliefs cannot really be forced to wear it as a symbol of Islamic extremism. Thus we must raise the question of whether anyone is allowed to wear the burkini, and if not, why. Can men wear the burkini? Or non-Muslims? Or people who wish to protect their skin? The practicalities of this ban are dubious and it leaves room for authorities to only implement the ban based on one’s gender and ethnicity.

Why is the burkini so significant? Shanon Fitzpatrick argues that the burkini’s media popularity is rooted in its quality as a visual symbol that is able to accommodate overlapping debates about immigration, feminism, and national identity. This outfit is understood in many ways. It is read as a signifier of integration, as the Muslim minority can join activities of the host country (e.g. going to a mixed-gender beach). It can be read as a signifier of ‘progress’, a modernizing invention that brings Muslim women’s fashion and leisure pursuits up to speed with those of their non-Muslim counterparts. It can also be seen as a sign of freedom, as a burkini enables women to participate in public activities, and also frees them from the male gaze and the exacting standards of female beauty. However, some argue the exact opposite of all of this. The burkini can be seen as symbol of how Muslim women have failed to integrate into Western culture, as a step backwards on the way to modernisation, and, of course, as a sign of women’s oppression. The burkini signifies the oppression of women, provocation of the dominant society, and religious extremism, as as well as the opposite of all of these things. Thus one of the main arguments against the burkini is really a reflection of the contemporary political climate.

Tweet by Simran Jeet Singh, Religion Professor at Trinity University

The ban’s supporters are backing up their stance with French secularism that is based on the 1905 Law on Separation of the Churches and State (the backbone of laïcité). Laïcité requires religion to be absent in government affairs but it guarantees the freedom to exercise it. The government must refrain from taking positions on religious doctrine and only consider religious subjects for their practical consequences on the lives of the citizens. Even though no law mentions it, the current political discussion often argues that the 1905 law also includes that the government should separate private life, where religion belongs, and the public sphere, where everyone should appear as a simple citizen equal to others, without any ethnic, religious or other particularities. This is due to two laws which were recently passed. In 2004, it was decreed that it is forbidden to the wear any religious symbols in schools, evoking the values of laïcité, and in 2010, a law was passed that states that it is forbidden to cover one’s whole face (mainly targeting the niqab) in a public space. The idea that public spaces should be free of religious symbols stems from these laws that have been blurred together in the public discourse. This discourse (unlike the original laicité law itself) accommodates the idea that everyone should be presented as a citizen without any particular religious identity, but it fails to account for the freedom to practice one’s own religion. From a human rights perspective, this idea of secularism is problematic. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to […] religion; this right includes the freedom either […] in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Thus restricting one’s rights to wear any religious symbols or clothing is against one’s fundamental rights. Still, there are many manifestations of certain beliefs that are not appropriate in certain situations or are even illegal, such as the Nazi salute in many European countries. Surely, the problem here is that banning the burkini and other religious symbols only stigmatises those religions, making them fall into the same category as ideologies that are seen as highly dangerous. In fact, the bans only endorse false and harmful narratives about Muslim people and risks increasing tensions between communities, while also hardening the feeling of injustice felt by some Muslims in France. They create an absurd correlation between how some Muslim women choose to dress and the terrorist attacks that French people have suffered. The main objectives of the burkini ban are to protect women’s rights and the republican principles of secularism, yet it has attempted to do so by restricting their right to choose what they would like to wear. It is also very contradictory, since the ban can be a recruitment tool for the Islamic State providing a justification for the attacks. Additionally, it is safe to say that, though the ban was declared to be illegal, the fact that only the highest court of France was able to stop it is worrisome.

If you would like to help fight Islamophobia in France you can donate to the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) which is launching an online awarness campaign on the issue.

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