In France, cities continue to outlaw the burkini, a modest full-covering bathing suit worn by some Muslim women. According to the New York Times, five cities, including Cannes, have already banned the burkini and three more are in the process of doing so.
It’s perhaps surprising that the burkini has become a site of such intense focus. Though France has long regulated head scarfs and burqas, the Times notes that the swimsuit is rarely seen on beaches. Many of the mayors leading the charge against it have never actually seen one. But since a series of terrorist attacks in the country, including in the beach town Nice, the burkini has “become a new dividing line in France’s increasingly fraught relationship with its Muslim population, Europe’s largest.”
The burkini ban has seemingly united members of both France’s far right, like Marine Le Pen, and Socialist on the left. Le Pen’s support of the ban isn’t surprising; as the leader of France’s National Front, she’s long stoked the fires of Islamophobia in the country. She’s found an ally, however, in Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a member of François Hollande’s cabinet. Yesterday, Valls openly voiced support of the burkini ban, calling the swimsuit part of the “the enslavement of women.” His support of the ban has also been reiterated by feminist members of the Socialist party. The Times reports:
Laurence Rossignol, a feminist and the Socialist minister for families, children and women’s rights, called the burkini “profoundly archaic” and “not just a new kind of bathing attire,” but a garment with a deeper meaning. “That meaning is to hide, to conceal the women’s bodies and the position it accords to women is a position that I fight against,” she said in a television interview.
But what both left and right are seeking to ban is unclear. There is no legal definition of the burkini and many Muslim women don’t wear the garment marketed in Europe by retailers like Marks & Spencer. Instead, they often wear long sleeve t-shirts and fitted pants or replace the hijab with a swimming cap. According to reports, women wearing modest clothing have also been harassed and removed from beaches and fined, even though they are not breaking the law. Regardless, ten women have already been prosecuted under the new laws.
Some observers have also noted that the burkini isn’t a sign of oppression but rather the liberal values of French Muslims. Again, via the Times
In conservative Muslim countries, women would never go to a beach with men, much less go swimming, since even in the burkini the wet cloth sticks to a woman’s body, outlining her curves.
“This is a good news in a way because it means Muslim women who didn’t used to enjoy that day at the beach or at the pool are now taking part, they are socializing,” [Marwan Muhammad, the executive director of the Center Against Islamophobia] said.
But supporters of the ban insist it isn’t targeting religious women. Instead it’s about “hygiene,” a line of reasoning that, within the context of post-colonialism, is fraught with meaning. “I was informed that there was a couple on one of our beaches where the wife was swimming fully dressed,” Lionnel Lucca, mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet, one of the cities who have banned burkinis, told the AFP, “I considered that unacceptable for hygienic reasons and unwelcome given the general situation.”
Whether or not hygiene or women’s liberation is the excuse being used, the focus on banning the burkini is a strange one. At its core, it’s legally compelling women to show an immeasurable—but somehow still necessary—amount of skin in order to prove their allegiance to a state. It’s certainly not the first time France has focused on legislating women’s clothes as a means to inscribe nationalistic ideals. In 2004, the country banned religious symbols, including head scarfs, from state-run schools. In 2011, France also outlawed all face covering.