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The Burkini

Burkini : when France is threatened by swimwear

By Manon Variol

France has recently made the headlines. Sadly, it was not for the right reasons. Over the last month, more than 30 French towns have banned the burkini on their beaches. Many  people were shocked by this decision. What has happened to trigger such a fierce debate?

What is burkini?

The name of this swimwear comes from the mix between “burqa” and ‘bikini”. It was originally made for Muslim women who want to bathe. The burkini covers the whole body except the face, hands and feet. Aheda Zanetti is Australian and she is the creator of this swimwear. She initially designed it “to give women freedom, not to take it away”. She feels sad when thinking about the debate raging in France about her burkini. “It symbolises leisure and happiness and fun and fitness and health”, she claimed, “and now they are demanding women get off the beach and back into their kitchens?

 Aheda Zanetti invented the burkini
Aheda Zanetti invented the burkini

Why is there such a debate?

Many people had never heard about the burkini before 28 July, when the mayor of Cannes David Lisnard passed a local by-law banning “beachwear ostentatiously showing a religious affiliation.” Soon after, about 30 French town did the same. The by-laws never mention the burkini, but it is obvious that it is the target. The newspaper Nice Matin has called David Lisnard, who said he has “not banned the Muslim headscarf, the kippah, nor the crucifix, I have just banned something which is the symbol of Islamic extremism.”

Oh, we didn’t know that only extremists liked to bathe in a burkini…

But David Lisnard was not the first one to ban the swimwear. It has been prohibited in Mandelieu-la-Napoule since 2014, but this has been unnoticed until now.

However, women still wear this outfit that “threatens” our country and are fined €38 (£32) if they are found wearing it on the beach.

Ever since the debate started, the Organisation against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) has been fighting against the ban, which is “a serious infringement to freedom of religious expression.” Sarah is a lawyer for the CCIF. She told me she is “astounded” by the by-laws: “It has worsened the stigmatisation against Muslims, particularly Muslim women”. Mayors explained that they are preserving laicity, but “only the state and civil servants should be religiously neutral, not its citizens who are enjoying time on the beach” she claimed.

The CCIF urges for the by-law to be suspended in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet. The  Council of state, the highest French court has voted against the by-law banning the burkini. The Human Rights League was fighting against it with them. The HRL Honorary Chairman, Michel Tubiana, told me that he was ready to go to the European Court of Human Rights if the state council voted in favour of the ban.

Are we not going too far ?

France has been in hight alert since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015. But are we not going too far to “protect public order”? 

The ban only targets “beachwear”, but it seems that policemen are not clear on what is and is  not banned. A French woman claimed she has been fined for wearing a hijab with leggings and a tunic. She was therefore not wearing a swimsuit but daily clothes. Some might say: “you know, bathing with clothes you have worn all day is not very hygienic.” Are you worried for the fish ? How nice. But I am not sure that David Lisnard and other mayors wanted to protect the environment with this ban.

As long as the permitted beachwear is not precisely specified, this could go far, really far.

The Daily Mail has published photos which quickly spread on the internet. A woman who is not wearing a burkini is lying on the beach, listening to the sound of the waves. The policemen seem to be embarrassed by her pants, long-sleeves and scarf. They asked her to remove the top she wore over her T-shirt so she does not threaten the nation. 

Muslim clothes are then frightening, is this the same for the other religions? Sir, please, remove your kippah, who knows what you could hide under it. Dear nuns, forget about a picnic by the sea, you could cause trouble. Do you hide guns under your dress? As long as you are not on the beach, this doesn’t matter. 

Chinese people love the facekini. But how would the French react ?
Chinese people love the facekini. But how would the French react ?

Do you feel ashamed of your curves? Please show them, you could be dangerous with this outfit. What about the facekini? This hideous Chinese trend helps women keeping their skin white by entirely covering their face. No link with with religion, but hiding your face has been prohibited in France for more than 5 years. Is this a public order offence to cause nightmares? What would the French police do if Chinese people were using it in Cannes?

In a nutshell, this debate does not make any sense.

As many as 64% of French people agree with the mayors banning the burkini, according to an Ifop study. However, many others do not understand the point of it. Even feminist associations (who are fiercely opposed to the headscarf) support women wearing burkinis. “Muslim women are the victims here, they are humiliated by racist and sexist people” the association Osez le féminisme said in a letter.

On 25 August, protesters brought their own beach to the front of the French embassy in London. Sand, towels, lilos and swimsuits. Their slogan was “Non à l’islamophobie, oui au burkini” (no to islamophobia, yes to the burkini). Maybe showing your opinion with humour will lighten up the intensifying debate.

What do the Britons think about it ?

Newspapers of the whole world have made fun of the French for banning the burkini.

In the UK, Britons do not really understand why the mayors of 30 towns would do it. The Guardian has published five reasons to wear a burkini – and not just to annoy the French, while the very conservative Daily Mail has mocked the burkini cops. The BBC is worried about the divers who could be thought to be Muslim women wearing the banned swimsuit.

Media have also pointed out that the burkini is not only used by Muslim women. The cook Nigella Lawson has worn it in Australia to protect her skin from the blazing sun.

French are not only shocked by the debate, but also ashamed to be seen as racists and sexists, whereas it simply seems to be a way for our politicians to make people talk of them before the presidential election. Bravo to the country of the Human Rights!


04/08/2018 - smithd586 said :

whoah this blog is wonderful i like reading your articles.

20/09/2016 - nathaliemh22 said :

I agree with the first very well researched comments. Women should be free to choose if become unclothed in a bikini or chose to be in a swim suit if Muslim or wish to remain clothed. It is a human right. I think there are petitions about this on or similar. I make a point of people friendly to muslim women as the barrage they face is atrocious.

31/08/2016 - aslewton said :

I do not think ANYONE, for whatever reason, has the right to say what women or men should wear ON A PUB LIC BEACH, in swimming pools in France maybe, as they do or in UK we may have different rules (we have a lot of women only events here where women from lots of countries prefer not to have male staff or males present .. fine) but on a beach in open air you cannot tell a woman what to wear ? It is sexist. She might have a skin condition or want to cover up from the burning may have nothing to do with religion ? The ' burkini ' was created to give women who wanted to not reeval themselves (Nigella Lawson a famous chef in Uk wore one a few years ago when she was putting on weight for example, she didnt want photos taken of her in that way), the garment was invented not just for religious reasons, not at all, but to give women a chance to swim it is not threatening it is liberating for them .. and think about this.. if those women do not go to the beach because they are afraid if being humiliated or fined what about their children ? Do you really think you will see many males taking their family to the beach if the female is not there as well ? Thousands of women live by the sea in the countries banning the burkini and were born int hat country perhaps ? Think about what that is doing to their family their children and relations. Stop the ban now France, it is not helping the situation. France should be addressing its marginalisation of Muslims not these women. (I have lived in France so please do not say i do not know how people are treated).

31/08/2016 - p.cadier said :

Topless bathing used to be a normal feature of French leisure culture. This practice has declined over the last 20 years in the face of the rise of puritanism. Young women today are intimidated even when they are wearing a bikini. It all reminds me of Britain in the 1950's, of uptight anglo-saxons ashamed of mother nature's gifts.
The burkini ban is the French way of saying "enough is enough!"
" Vive la diffèrence! "


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