The Problem with France’s Burkini Ban UPDATED!

August 25, 2016 § 8 Comments



So 16 towns and cities in France, all on the Mediterranean Coast, have banned the so-called burkini, a body-covering garment that allows devout Muslim women to enjoy the beach and summer weather.  France, of course, has been positively rocked by Islamist violence in the past 18 months or so.  So you had to expect a backlash.  But this is just downright stupid.

There is a historical context here (read this whole post before lambasting me, please).  French society believes in laïcité, a result of the French Revolution of 1789 and the declericisation of French society and culture in the aftermath.  To this end, French culture and the French state are both secularised. Religious symbols are not welcome in public, nor are the French all that comfortable with religious practice in public.  Now, this makes perfect sense to me, coming as I do from Quebec, which in the 1960s, during our Revolution tranquille, also underwent a process of declericisation.  Quebec adopted the French model of a secular state.

But, in Quebec as in France, not all secularism is equal.  Catholic symbols still exist all over France as a product of French history, to say nothing of the grand cathedrals and more humble churches that dot the landscape. But other religious symbols, they’re not quite as welcome, meric.

Nonetheless, it is in the context of this laïcité that the burkini ban arises.

But in practice, it is something else entirely.  This is racism.  This is ethnocentrism.  And this is stupid.  Just plain stupid. French Prime Minister Manuel Valis claims that the burkini is a symbol of the ‘enslavement of women.’ The mayor of Cannes claims that the burkini is the uniform of Muslim extremism.  It is neither.  And the burkini bans are not about ‘liberating’ Muslim women in France.  They are not about a lay, secular society.  They are designed to target and marginalize Muslim women for their basic existence in France.

In the New York Times this week, Asma T. Uddin notes the problem with these bans when it comes to the European Court of Human Rights and symbols of Islam.  Back in 2001, the Court found that a Swiss school teacher wearing a head scarf in the classroom was ‘coercive’ in that it would work to proselytize young Swiss children.  I kid you not.  And, as Uddin reports, since that 2001 decision, the Court has continually upheld European nations’ attempts to limit the rights of Muslims, especially Muslim women, when it comes to dress.

Then there was the shameful display of the police in Nice this week, which saw four armed policemen harass a middle-aged Muslim woman on the beach.  She was wearing a long-sleeved tunic and bathing in the sun.  The police, however, issued her a ticket for not ‘wearing an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.’  Again, I kid you not.

Laïcité is supposed to be not just the separation of church and state, but also the equality of all French citizens.  Remember the national motto of the French republic: ‘liberté, éqalité, et fraternité.’  These are lofty goals.  But the attempts to ban the burkini and attack Muslim women for their attire is not the way one goes about attaining liberté, nor égalité nor fraternité.  Rather, it creates tiered culture, it creates one group of French who are apart from the rest.  It is discriminatory and childish. And let’s not get on the subject of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who wants to run again, and promises to ensure that Muslim and Jewish students in the lycées eat pork.

I understand France’s concerns and fears. But attacking Islam is not the way to defeat terrorists who claim to be Muslim.  It only encourages them.  It is time for France to live up to its own mottos and goals.  And Western feminists (and pro-feminist men) need to speak up on this topic.


News comes this evening that the Deputy Mayor of Nice, and President of the Regional Council of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, has threatened to sue people who share images of the police attempting to enforce the burkini ban on social media. I kid you not.  Christian Estrosi states that the images cause harm to the police (if that is true, that is not right, of course).

It is worth pointing out that it would be very difficult for Estrosi to find legal standing to launch a lawsuit, as French law allows citizens and media outlets to publish images and videos of the police and that, without a judicial order, French police cannot seize a photographer’s camera or phone.



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§ 8 Responses to The Problem with France’s Burkini Ban UPDATED!

  • Ok but it’s also a weird French hygiene thing. Men are not allowed to wear swim shorts at many pools, only the tight swimwear. There are hygiene notices everywhere explaining how baggy clothing like shorts are interdit. So the Burkinis ban is not just racist, it happens to be consistent with their culture, in particular their hygiene culture. I have a photo but can’t figure out how to post it.

    • Thanks for reading! But that’s not quite accurate. The policy you refer to is only in place for pools. And the rule is that you can only wear swimwear, items of clothing designed specifically for swimming. Thus, anything that can be worn as regular clothing is not allowed. This is in part because French pools are not chlorinated to the extent they are in the US and Canada.

      But the burkini bans are all along the Mediterranean Coast of France, on beaches on the sea. There, the rules that exist for pools do not exist, because ocean and sea water is self-cleaning through currents.

      So, that brings us back to the racism of the burkini ban.

  • Sagnik Sarkar says:

    Perhaps bit of the problem lies in the fact the French model of secularism is probably a little too extreme.

    Secularism is fine. But equating anything even remotely associated with a religion to be a display of religious symbols, when it is nothing but a perfectly valid clothing choice, is outrageous.

    Indeed, if France respects its civil liberties, it shouldn’t curtail the right of women to wear a burkini. Surely, I hope such a harmless piece of clothing would not be such a threat to France’s national security to justify exceptions to freedom of choice.

    • Yes, laïcité is the root of the problem here. But, the problem with this approach, of course, is the French can and do claim that Catholicism and Catholic symbols are part of French culture and history, to the exclusion of symbols of other religions, including Judaism.

      And, yeah, the idea of clothing being a threat to national security is ridiculous.

  • Brian Bixby says:

    Having just come back from France, I noted how many businesses close, or close early, on Sundays. Hard to tell, but it looked like more do than here in the States, which seems perverse.

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