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French burkini ban sends wrong messages about subjugation

There’s no doubt there’s been a drastic shift in the social climate in France in the wake of the horrifying terror attacks. Tensions are understandably high as the country suffers blow after blow. But the burkini ban on several of the country’s beaches comes across as misguided, an ultra-politicised move using (limitations on) fashion to further stigmatise Muslim women. Cannes, Nice and Villeneuve-Loubet are amongst the now 15 municipalities to ban the garment on beaches, and authorities are indeed patrolling to evict or fine offenders wearing the burkini. Just yesterday officers stirred outrage as they forced women to remove the offending outfit in Nice.

The ban will come before France’s highest administrative court on Thursday, following an appeal from French NGO, the Human Rights League.

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France is a country in a lot of pain, but this particular move comes across as reactionary displacement, mysogynistic and it’s hard to see how it is going to make France’s beaches any safer. And why is it only women’s clothing which has been targeted?

The sentiments have triggered a backlash on social media and in global news outlets.

The symbolism is distasteful and makes for uneasy reading. Mayors from the municipalities have reasoned that the burkini symbolises radical Islam and values that run counter to France’s.

The burkini is full coverage swimwear with long sleeves, leggings and a hood and is actually Australian in origin. It’s often worn for modesty by some, though not exclusively, Muslim women. Although in France, the burkini has been linked to Islam, those who have lived in Asia have seen variations of this (though mostly without the hood) worn by non-Muslims to prevent tanning while at the beach. Nigella Lawson once famously wore a burkini to Bondi Beach in 2011.

Long-sleeved swimming tops are common in Hong Kong pools, especially on children, and I’ve seen lycra leggings on many Asian beaches. The Chinese famously even went one step further with the face-kini – a balaclava-like piece to keep UV rays of the face.

Swimwear covering your torso, hair (hello, swim caps?) and arms and legs isn’t in itself problematic or new, or specifically catering towards only Muslims. The authorities in these French towns have deemed the burkini symbolically offensive – not physically offensive – and an affront to their secular values.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told the Guardian, that burkinis were “expressions of an archaic vision of women in public places … The burkini is not a new swimwear fashion; it’s the transmission of a political project, against society, founded notably upon the subjection of women. Some people try to portray those who wear them as victims, as though we were calling liberty into question. But there is no liberty to subjugate women.”

I can appreciate the abstract, though twisted, logic, but the reality plays out as more profiling of Muslim women in an already fragmented society. And isn’t there some irony in subjugating and controlling what many women willing chose to wear to the beach to prevent further subjugation of women? In 2004, there was the introduction of bans on the hijab in public schools in France, and in 2011, the niqab was banned in public places. Offenders are fined.

The French are often rightly proud of their secular society, I get it – but these recent fashion policies are clearly targeted at the Muslim community and only serve to increase tensions between France’s Islamic minority (the largest in Europe) and its general population.

Neither the hijab nor niqab is my personal cup of tea, but then neither are ’80s shoulders or drop crotch harem pants for that matter, but that is all beside the point. I assume that most of those burkini-ed women on France’s beaches have chosen to wear them and have not been forced. Women should have that choice.

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Throughout history, authorities have always sought to limit females through controlling their clothing. Not long ago Western and Asian societies would dictate skirt lengths and types of clothing permissible, and today countries like Saudi Arabia still mete out severe punishments for offenders of a moral law which extends to fashion.

In a traditionally liberal republic like France, a ban on something we find aesthetically displeasing is heading down a dangerous path. And a targeted clothing ban that further singles out and isolates religious women is no less dangerous. The bans are counterproductive and neighbouring Italy has already refused to follow suit. Italian Minister of the Interior Angelino Alfano has said: “It doesn’t seem to me, alas, that the French model has worked for the best.”

In an ironic twist, the Guardian newspaper reports that the Lebanese-Australian inventor of the burkini, Aheda Zanetti, has been inundated with orders since the ban, and mostly from non-Muslims, as many all over the world rally against France’s ban. CNN reported that Rachid Nekkaz, “a wealthy Algerian entrepreneur and human rights activist” has stepped in offering to pay burkini-ban fines for women in France.

The ban will come before France’s highest administrative court on Thursday, following an appeal from French NGO, the Human Rights League.