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Beach in Cannes, one of the places at the centre of the Burkini controversy
Beach in Cannes, one of the places at the centre of the Burkini controversy
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Investigating The Burkini Ban: A Woman's Right To Choose?

Picture of India Doyle
Updated: 26 August 2016
A series of incidents have swept through the media this summer, cataloguing occasions where Muslim women have been told to remove their headscarfs on the beach. Most recently, a woman in Nice was confronted by 3 policemen, reportedly armed with pepper spray, who demanded that she removed her loose fitting blue clothing and headscarf, that was wrapped around her head but did not cover her face.

The burkini ban is contentious for a number of reasons, with detractors citing feminist, racial and cultural reasons. The law that forbids religious clothing has been in place in France since 2011 and tensions have heightened since the new wave of terrorist attacks that have taken place in the country. France is undoubtedly experiencing a time of crisis, and as a sense of nationhood seems threatened for some, politicians are looking for new, more extreme ways of re-establishing a sense of identity. In a speech which had eerie echoes of Donald Trump, Nicholas Sarkozy recently launched his presidential campaign by stating he would reclaim France “for the French”. But where does the burkini come in?

The Right To Choose

Crucial to the debate is the fact that there are countries–Saudi Arabia, Iran–in which women are forced to wear the hijab, and face fines or imprisonment for not adhering to governmental rules. Worryingly, France has adopted a similar strategy to enforce a secular style of dress, aimed exclusively at one religion. It should go without saying that Muslims in France must have the same rights to wear what they want as the rest of the country. The burkini, burqa and hijab are forms of religious expression, but also of self-expression, and negating these rights goes against the country’s liberal ideology. Another worrying factor in the burkini ban is as to whether it is only banned as a religious choice or as a secular style as well. One wonders whether Nigella Lawson would have been approached in quite the same way by the French police the time she made Christmas come early for The Daily Mail. The law invites more questions than it answers, with many already wondering if they will be fined for wearing wetsuits or scarfs around their hair.

Religious dress across the world

Hasidic Jewish women abide by Tzniut, sometimes wearing wigs to hide their hair; Christian-influenced dress code ranges vastly, from nun’s habits to the traditional Amish dress. And yet the Nice tribunal ruled burkinis were “liable to offend the religious convictions or (religious) non-convictions of other users of the beach,” and were seen “as a defiance or a provocation exacerbating tensions felt by” the community. As the final days of summer swell to a scorching crescendo, the burkini is forced to become a symbol of disunity.

Le Pen and the Burkini Ban supporters

Not one to miss a press opportunity, France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen said in a statement “France does not lock away a woman’s body, France does not hide half of its population under the fallacious and hateful pretext that the other half fears it will be tempted.” In a video posted by Time Out London, the comments section quickly filled up, with some equating burkinis and genital mutilation. For those that condone the actions in France, the rhetoric continues to be either inherently or explicitly “us agains them”, operating within a lexicon of fear. Many have claimed that this is something Isis will welcome as justification for their attacks on our shared values–freedom, community and equality. Indeed, what better way to promote a unified front to terrorists than to have women dressed as they like all sitting side by side–the photograph of the Olympic volleyball teams was a poignant example of how disparate cultures should and could be coming together.

Islamophobia vs. Misogyny: Or is it both?

The sexualisation and fetishism of the female body has always existed. Beyond the intolerable prejudice towards one religion happening in France, the move becomes the next step in ownership of women’s body. Overly covered, bodies incite fear and distrust; exposed they invite sexual violence and slut-shaming. In spite of some attempts to #freethenipple, it seems women’s bodies have never been more scrutinised. As Aheda Zanetti, creator of the burkini writes: “This has given women freedom, and they want to take that freedom away? So who is better, the Taliban or French politicians? They are as bad as each other.”