The Burkini Ban: Veiling prejudice and fear in the name of national security?

The burkini ban in France has been a hot issue this summer. It has been widely debated, not only in Europe but also across Europe’s borders. Here at Pusat Rakyat, Fahri Azzat and Firdaus Husni looked behind the ban itself and discussed stereotypical gender issues, public order and terrorist concerns.

Now, as the swimming season in Europe is drawing to an end, I,

France is currently the only European country, which prohibits the Burkini as a piece of clothing for women regardless of her religion. However, the bans are local by-laws instead of country-wide legislation – hence, it is not surprising that every municipality uses slightly different arguments to justify the ban. Cannes started out by declaring that “beachwear ostentatiously showing a religious affiliation while France and places of religious significance are the target of terror attacks” is unacceptable and that the ban ought to uphold public order[1]. In Villeneuve-Loubet, the Burkini was deemed as disrespectful to the principle of secularism, threatening to security and an obstacle to hygiene[2]. The same ideas resonated in a statement by Prime Minister Manuel Valls, calling the Burkini “not compatible with the values of France and the Republic”[3].

Interestingly enough, the word “Burkini” is not explicitly contained in any of the local laws; The expression used in the laws is “beachwear ostentatiously showing a religious affiliation“ and this can be applicable to all religions[4]. Does the lack of specification lead also to a ban of wet suits, nun garments etc.? This question has never been answered by any French official and could indicate the overhasty implementation of the ban.

Besides stirring a tremendous debate, the local Burkini bans have also triggered judicial reaction. France’s constitutional court abolished the Burkini ban in Villeneuve-Loubet. It held that the ban violated civil liberties, including freedom of religion and freedom of movement.  Critics of the Burkini ban hoped for a precedent-setting value of the ruling, but their hopes were disappointed. As they did not face legal consequences from the ruling in Viilleneuve-Loubet, most municipalities did not overturn the ban.

However, the ruling of the constitutional court may have an impact beyond Villeneuve-Loubet. It illustrated that if the Burkini ban was legally challenged in other municipalities, the ban would likely be overturned as well. For now, the obstacles of the constitutional court make a country-wide ban of Burkinis unlikely[5].

A curious question in this whole debate is why no other European country has come up with a comparable ban. As France, Belgium and the Netherlands are the only European countries with a country-wide face covering ban, what incited France to go even one step further?

In my opinion, France has both historical and contemporary peculiarities in comparison to other European nations. Firstly, France has fallen victim to several Islamic terrorist attacks – the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January 2015; the Bataclan attack in November 2015; and last but not least the truck driving into a crowd celebrating the national holiday in Nice. Shortly after, Nice adopted the Burkini ban to safeguard public order and national security.

It is comprehensible that the flowing robes of a Burqa may be perceived as a possibility to disguise any kind of weapons and as such, may evoke an uneasy feeling in a country shaken by terrorist attacks. Here, the misleading name of the Burkini may have affected the public opinion. Whereas the Burqa covers the whole face, the Burkini leaves the face uncovered and lies closer to the body.

Political reactions to the attacks are understandable, but the Burkini ban seems – in Fahri Azzat’s words – to be “the clumsy attempt to signal the end of humiliation that jihadists have brought over the country in recent months”[6]. Sadly, the Burkini ban could lead to the exact opposite and play into the hands of terrorists, who may use the Burkini ban as proof of an alleged war of the West against Muslims and may prompt followers to carry out even more attacks on French soil[7].

Secondly, France practices a very strong form of secularism. The strict isolation of religion from the state is cemented in French law since 1905[8]. It is deeply anchored in the French identity; in fact, it was established long before the aftermath of the World Wars that introduced human rights commitments on states.

As such, it could be argued that the Burkini ban was intended to uphold secularism in France. As more and more French municipalities adopted bans of the Burkini, critics voiced the concern that secularism is now abused to exclude Muslims from public life. Traditional secularism however, demands neutrality of the state and not of individuals[9].

Secularism was and is a big obstacle when it comes to the integration of Muslims (in France) in the past 30 to 40 years. The French interpretation of secularism is not uncontested. As Fahri Azzat put it, a “better secularism“ would allow all religions to stand side by side instead of being banned from public life.[10] This kind of secularism would increase the understanding for each other and contribute to a more diverse, yet inclusive environment.

Thirdly, France, alongside Germany, accommodates more Muslims than any other EU country. How come? This could be traced back to colonialism when France occupied regions vastly inhabited by Muslims. Even back then, covering veils of any kind were treated as a symbol of “backwardness”.  After the World Wars, colonised Muslims immigrated into France and naturally brought with them their culture and religion. However, France never really came to terms with its post-colonial identity and many French do not believe that two such diverse cultures can peacefully co-exist. Whereas a person cannot determine its race or skin colour, clothing is subject to choice and could theoretically be easily adapted[11]. Many French people may view the wearing of Muslim clothes as an affront to French secularism and as a refusal to comply with the “French” way of living.

Despite, or because of, the long connection between France and Islam, the Burkini ban does not give the impression that the state is trying to protect Muslim women from strict Islamic norms. Rather, it seems to demonstrate that the state is trying to protect the French non-Muslim population from an ever-changing world. It would appear that the French seem reluctant to broaden their identity and let Muslims truly become part of their society[12]. It is questionable if the Burkini will succeed in drawing a line between “French” and “Non-French”.

Fourthly, France is preparing for federal elections in the spring of 2017. The Burkini ban may be viewed as an attempt to soothe the raised tempers of potential voters. At this moment in time, there is a wide array of possible presidential candidates. The candidates’ attitudes towards the Burkini ban are quite differing. Hollande, current president and member of the left Socialist Party, announced that there will not be a national Burkini ban as long as he is in office.[13] President Hollande is not likely to stand a chance in the next elections, as polls suggest that he would only get 12 to 16 percent of votes in the first round of the elections.[14] Manuel Valls, current prime minister, may therefore become the next socialist presidential candidate. Contrasting Hollande’s attitude towards the ban, Valls is in favor of the ban and has called the Burkini a “provocation of radical Islam“.[15]

Former President Sarkozy has announced his presidential campaign for the centre right party Les Republicaines. He has voiced his support for a ban throughout the Republic to support his security-focused campaign.[16] Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé, who is more likely to be elected candidate for Les Republicaines, opposes the Burkini ban, arguing it is anti-constitutional.[17]

The far right presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen is in clear favor of the ban and convinced that the Burkini symbolizes a rise in fundamentalist Islam.[18]

In the light of recent events, the 2017 elections will be heavily influenced by terrorism and security and the outcome will largely determine the future of the Burkini ban.

Whereas the arguments of proponents can be found along these lines of re-establishing security, upholding national identity and secularism, the arguments of critics appear to be manifold.

The most prevalent criticism of the ban deals with the attack on human rights – regulating what women should or should not wear is a violation of human rights. It does not play a role if a regulation on women’s clothing supports or prohibits the wearing of a veil – either form of such a regulation would violate human rights. From this perspective, the “protection“ of human dignity through the Burkini ban is nothing more than an excuse as it implies that women are simply unable to determine their clothing[19]. This attitude may have the same disempowering effect as forcing women to cover themselves. A popular opinion on this matter came from Joanne K. Rowling, referring to the “provocative nature” of the Burkini in this “sexist debate”. She criticised that “whether women cover or uncover their bodies, seems we’re always, always ‘asking for it”[20].

Italian feminist Zanardo similarly voiced her concerns over the freedom of a women to chose her own clothing. She criticises Arab men “who have adopted to the local customs and wear light clothes” at the beach, whereas the women next to them are completely covered up[21]. As any of the Burkini-ban-critics, she assumes that the women were not given a choice to determine their outfit. Does this attitude reflect a common misconception of the Muslim world?

If a woman is indeed forced to wear a veil against her will, it is for the state to protect her from her husband or family[22]. The Burkini ban will not change anything about that, but may actually make things worse. Instead of letting the woman go to the beach in appropriate modest clothing, her husband may not let her out at all if she is forced to wear a Bikini or bathing suit.

Beyond the criticism that focuses on the violation of women’s rights, some critics regard the Burkini ban as a symbol of Islamophobic discrimination in general. They claim that the Burkini ban serves as a “collective punishment“ for the cruelties that terrorists committed in the name of the Islam. If France really wanted to impose a sort of collective punishment, it would have to come up with a ban that affects men equally as women.

Apart from the gender-perspective of this criticism, it must never be forgotten that Jihadists hijack the identity of Islam to carry out an attack in the name of their religion and do not represent Islam as a whole. Therefore critics argue that the Burkini ban may have a stigmatizing effect and is not an appropriate reaction towards the threat of terrorist attacks.

Thus, the Burkini ban can contribute to a growing divide in society. By forcing Muslims to forego their clothing of their choosing, they could be asked to choose between their religious identity and a (more) Western lifestyle[23]. When forced to make a choice, people generally tend to become defiant and stubborn, thus resulting in even more women refusing to uncover, may it be on the beach or elsewhere- a phenomenon which has already occurred.

The Burkini inventor herself, Aheda Zanetti, accused France of misunderstanding the Burkini, which was originally intended to give Muslim women the possibility to participate in society without limiting their religious expression[24]. The Burkini was designed to “give women freedom, not to take it away”[25]. Unfortunately, the Burkini ban disappointed Zanetti’s hopes, at least in France. In the meantime, the merits of the Burkini have also been recognised by non-Muslims. In Britain for example, 35 percent of buyers do not buy it for religious reasons, but for sun protection. Furthermore, the Burkini gives women of all sizes the opportunity to feel comfortable at the beach[26].

To sum up my impression, the French Burkini ban remains an effort to reassure the growing number of worried French citizens, who fear not only further terrorist attacks, but also to be culturally overrun. Instead of finding a way to co-exist, the “French” culture and the “Islamic” culture compete with each other.

In the light or rising euro-populist and right wing movements, France adopted the Burkini ban to fight the symptoms of those movements, but it fails to address the root causes. After all, history has proven that integration cannot be forced by bans.

 


[1] Dearden, L. (2016). Burkini ban. Why is France arresting Muslim women for wearing full-body swimwear and why are people so angry?. Independent.The  Retrieved from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/burkini-ban-why-is-france-arresting-muslim-women-for-wearing-full-body-swimwear-and-why-are-people-a7207971.html on 10th October 2016.

[2] Dearden, L. (2016). Burkini ban. Why is France arresting Muslim women for wearing full-body swimwear and why are people so angry?. Independent. Retrieved from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/burkini-ban-why-is-france-arresting-muslim-women-for-wearing-full-body-swimwear-and-why-are-people-a7207971.html on 10th October 2016.

[3] Kroet, C. (2016). Manuel Valls: Burkini “not compatible” with French values. Politico. Retrieved from: http://www.politico.eu/article/manuel-valls-burkini-not-compatible-with-french-values/ on 10th October 2016.

[4] Dearden, L. (2016). Burkini ban. Why is France arresting Muslim women for wearing full-body swimwear and why are people so angry?. Independent. Retrieved from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/burkini-ban-why-is-france-arresting-muslim-women-for-wearing-full-body-swimwear-and-why-are-people-a7207971.html on 10th October 2016.

[5] Blaise, L. & Breeden, A. (2016). Court overturns “Burini” ban in French town.The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/27/world/europe/france-burkini-ban.html?action=click&contentCollection=Europe&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article on 7th October 2016.

[6] Fahri, A. (2016). Discussion at UndiMsia! Chat on Burkini ban. Veiling prejudice and fear in the name of national security? On 24th September 2016.

[7] Dearden, L. (2016). Burkini ban. Why is France arresting Muslim women for wearing full-body swimwear and why are people so angry?. Independent.The  Retrieved from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/burkini-ban-why-is-france-arresting-muslim-women-for-wearing-full-body-swimwear-and-why-are-people-a7207971.html on 10th October 2016.

[8] Evans, M. (2016). What is French secularism? History Today. Retrieved from: http://www.historytoday.com/martin-evans/what-french-secularism on 10th October 2016.

[9] Blaise, L. & Breeden, A. (2016). Court overturns “Burini” ban in French town.The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/27/world/europe/france-burkini-ban.html?action=click&contentCollection=Europe&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article on 7th October 2016.

[10] Fahri, A. (2016). Discussion at UndiMsia! Chat on Burkini ban. Veiling prejudice and fear in the name of national security? On 24th September 2016.

[11] Senna, F. (2016). France’s “Burkini” Bans are about more than religion or clothing. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/19/world/europe/frances-burkini-bans-are-about-more-than-religion-or-clothing.html?action=click&contentCollection=Europe&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article&_r=0 on 10th Ocober 2016.

[12] Senna, F. (2016). France’s “Burkini” Bans are about more than religion or clothing. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/19/world/europe/frances-burkini-bans-are-about-more-than-religion-or-clothing.html?action=click&contentCollection=Europe&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article&_r=0 on 10th Ocober 2016.

[13] Cook, J. (2016). Francois Hollande. There will never be a burkini ban „as long as I’m president“. The World Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/hollande-slams-burkini-ban_us_57d199c9e4b03d2d45991654 on 21st October 2016.

[14] Lowe, J. (2016). Hollande would fall in French presidential election’s first round. Roll. Newsweek. Retrieved from: http://www.newsweek.com/francois-hollande-2017-election-running-emmanuel-macron-socialists-republican-501884 on 21st October 2016.

[15] Merlan, A. (2016). French prime minister Manuel Valls. The Burkini is a „provocation of radical Islam“. jezebel. Retrieved from: http://jezebel.com/french-prime-minister-manuel-valls-the-burkini-is-a-pr-1786244799 on 21st October 2016.

[16] Foster, P. (2016). Burkini must be banned in France, says Nicolas Sarkozy as he launches presidential election campaign. The Telegraph. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/25/burkini-must-be-banned-says-nicolas-sarkozy-as-he-launches-elect/ on 21st October 2016.

[17]Chrisafis, A. (2016). French mayors refuse to lift burkini ban despite court ruling. the guardian. Retrieved from:https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/28/french-mayors-burkini-ban-court-ruling on 21st October 2016.

[18]Dewan, A. &  Mortensen, A. (2016). French towns maintain burkini bans despite court rulings. CNN. Retrieved from: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/31/europe/france-burkini-ban/ on 21st October 2016.

[19] Dearden, L. (2016). Burkini ban. Why is France arresting Muslim women for wearing full-body swimwear and why are people so angry?. Independent.The  Retrieved from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/burkini-ban-why-is-france-arresting-muslim-women-for-wearing-full-body-swimwear-and-why-are-people-a7207971.html on 10th October 2016.

[20] Blair, O. (2016). JK Rowling condemns Nicolas Sarkozy over burkini ban “provocation” comments. Independent. Retrieved from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/burkini-ban-jk-rowling-nicolas-sarkozy-comments-twitter-swimwear-a7209806.html on 10th October 2016.

[21] Nadeau, B.L. (2016). Where#s the outrage over nun beachwear? The Daily Beast. Retrieved from: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/08/21/where-s-the-outrage-over-nun-beachwear.html on 10th October 2016.

[22] Chapman, S. (2016). The bare truth about French burkini bans. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman/ct-burkini-france-swimsuit-ban-muslim-perspec-20160819-column.html on 10th October 2016.

[23] Senna, F. (2016). France’s “Burkini” Bans are about more than religion or clothing. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/19/world/europe/frances-burkini-bans-are-about-more-than-religion-or-clothing.html?action=click&contentCollection=Europe&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article&_r=0 on 10th Ocober 2016.

[24] Taylor, L. (2016). France has “misunderstood” the burkini, Australian designer says. Thomas Reuters Foundation News. Retrieved from: http://news.trust.org/item/20160824154501-4tytc/ on 10th October 2016.

[25] Zanetti, A. (2016). I created the burking to give women freedom, not to take it away. the guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/24/i-created-the-burkini-to-give-women-freedom-not-to-take-it-away on 9th November 2016.

[26] Rainey, S. (2016). After the French burkini ban, image from Brighton beach split UK opinion. But is it a symbol of repression or or a sign of Muslim women’s growing freedom, asks Sarah Rainey. Mail online. Retrieved from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3762687/Burkini-Britain-controversial-French-ban-startling-image-Brighton-beach-split-UK-opinion-symbol-repression-sign-Muslim-women-s-growing-freedom.html on 10th October 2016.

 


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Posts by Tania Weber

Tania is a 21 year-old student from Germany who is currently interning in Malaysia as part of her studies. Back home in Europe, she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in European public administration in Germany and the Netherlands.

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