Criticizing France’s burkini law

Student troubled by discrimination of Muslim women

Published: Sept. 15, 2016


Slide 1


A MUSLIM WOMAN wears a burkini at a beach in Egypt. France recently banned women from wearing the garment.

Commentary by
Jessica Nickel


With tensions still high following the recent terror attacks, the French government has launched a new counter-terrorism initiative. However their plan is not to go after potential members of ISIS, but rather continue to harass a subgroup of its citizens that have already been on the receiving end of much exploitation in recent years: Muslim women.

You may remember the legislation passed into law in 2010 that banned the burka, or full body covering, and the niqab, or full face veil, from public spaces throughout France. The government claimed that this was not necessarily an act of Islamophobia, but rather a safety measure intended to prevent individuals from concealing their faces (however, you can legally walk around with a full-face motorcycle helmet). Additionally, many French citizens proclaim that the burka is inconsistent with the secular culture of the country and believe it has no place in the French way of life.

Many individual governments decided to extend their sociopolitical influence even more so in an attempt to preserve their secularistic culture which they perceive as being threatened. In the final weeks of August, many coastal communities in France elected to ban the swimwear (cleverly) named the “burkini”. The burkini is essentially a bathing suit designed to give Muslim women the freedom to participate in water activities comfortably while maintaining the codes of modesty. It resembles a full body wetsuit but is divided into two pieces: leggings and a long sleeved tunic swim shirt that also includes a hood. Many French officials see the burkini as a hindrance rather than a tool of participation, with the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declaring that it represents the “enslavement” of Muslim women, according to the NY Times.

In response to the new bans, law enforcement officers have taken to patrolling the beaches of their respective municipalities, confronting Muslim women they deem to be “inappropriately” dressed. Penalties for violating the ban vary from community to community, however the common ones are issuing fines, escorting the individuals from the beach, and/or requiring the individual to remove her “inappropriate” modest clothing.

Many human rights groups in Europe and the US, including the United Nations, were enraged when photographs began to circulate of officers armed with pistols, night sticks, and ballistic vests surrounding Muslim women on beaches and having them disrobe.

In an attempt to rationalize the ban, government officials explained that it is not necessarily the burkini itself that have banned from public beaches, but any form of clothing that “obviously [shows] a religious affiliation”, with one French mayor declaring that this sort of dress is an intentional provocation of the general public.

If this were, in fact, true, then all forms of dress displaying a religious affiliation would be banned from public beaches, including Christians wearing crosses, Catholic nuns in habits, and Jewish men wearing kippahs. To my knowledge, there has not been a single report of such enforcements occurring amongst these groups following the bans.

One woman, according to the NY Times, reportedly questioned police as to why they were targeting her, and not making any attempts to seek out those wearing crosses, as they are an obvious symbol of religious affiliation. Her question was promptly deflected, and she was forced by armed officers to leave the beach. Furthermore, these victimized women can find little support from the community. The same woman was told by other beach goers “We are Catholics here”, “The law is the law”, and “Go back to where you came from” (it should also be noted that this woman was a third-generation French citizen).

Following the intense backlash of this clear violation of human rights, most of the towns have suspended their bans, allowing Muslim families to once again enjoy the beach, though they are still not receiving warm receptions from their non-Muslim country-mates.

Everything about this story disgusts me. I think it is absolutely shameful of the government to decide whether or not a woman is dressed “too modestly”. How dare you force a woman to remove her clothing in public? How dare you to say that dressing modestly is a provocation of the public? While it is clearly Muslim women who are being singled out here, I cannot help but place myself into their position. I would be infuriated to be surrounded by police officers and to be told that I had to undress.

I also cannot help but think of my grandmother, who always went to the beach with long sleeves, a large hat, and a towel draped over her legs. She did this partially to avoid a reoccurrence of her melanoma, but also because she was not comfortable being too exposed. No one, I believe, has the right to prevent her from enjoying the beach because she was not showing enough skin. I believe the same thing is true for any woman, regardless of her religious affiliation.

This ban is yet another example of a society that still worships the patriarchy and abuses its most vulnerable citizens. I am not an expert on counterterrorism, but I don’t need to be to know that this ban will accomplish nothing, protect no one, and be a detriment to many.

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