French burkini party ban sparks political storm

Anoek DE GROOT / AFP | This file photo taken on January 12, 2007 shows Australian model Mecca Laalaa wearing an Islamic swimsuit (or burqini)

A ban on a women’s burkini event in Marseille has created a storm across the political spectrum about the lightening-rod issue of religious freedom in France.


Muslim community group Smile 13 had planned a party for women at a water park, asking swimmers to wear all over body suits to respect the Islamic notion of “awra”.

But the September 10 event was banned by the local government.

Left-wing Mayor Michel Amiel of Les Pennes-Mirabeau - a suburb of Marseille where the event was to be held - deemed the party a “threat to public order”.

“I consider this event a provocation which we do not need” he said, referring to the sensitive post-terrorist attacks climate in France. He also said he considered the event divisive.

Deputy mayor Dominique Bucci said the burkini is a risk to the country’s cultural values, saying it would be a breach of the equality between men and women and "trample" on secular values.

The far-right Front National party chimed in calling it, “an Islamic day”.


However, not all local politicians were in agreement.

The mayor of the a suburb neighbouring Les Pennes-Mirabeau, and a Muslim woman herself, Samia Ghali, was amongst those who condemned the ban.

“This is a private place and a private affair between the owner and the community group,” Ghali said. “To rent out a private place is not against the law, to swim while covered up is not against the law, and therefore I cannot see how one can forbid an event which poses no threat to public order.”

With nearly 200,000 Muslims, Marseille is a city where women wearing burkinis is a common sight.

Nissrine Samali, a young Muslim teacher who wears a burkini, told AFP she could not understand why wearing Islamic dress for water sports would bother anyone and said it would be better if people were more "open-minded".

Upholding secularism

Supporters and opponents of the banned burkini event claim they’re each speaking out for the fundamental freedoms encapsulated by secularism - a fiercely defended principle of the French Republic dating back to 1905.

France is currently struggling to balance its cherished secular values with its multicultural society following a wave of deadly terrorist attacks claimed by the so-called Islamic State group.

Late last year, socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls publicly reinforced the importance of France’s secularism at a speech at the national library (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Valls said that secularism ensured that “neither the state, nor the church, could impose a set of beliefs” on French citizens, who were thus free to “unite around common values”, such as freedom and equality.

Muslim women and freedom

Beatrice Halsaa, Professor of Gender Studies with a specialisation in citizenship and diversity at the University of Oslo, told FRANCE 24 that she disagreed with Mayor Amiel’s assertion in the media that the event was a violation of the “dignity of women”.

“It’s incomprehensible that a private event should be banned,” she said. “If it was a public event then the complexity of French secularism would be involved in a different way, but even then I would find it hard to understand.”

“I take the pragmatic approach. If wearing a burkini means more women are going to swim then I regard it as good thing,” she added.

Burkini goes mainstream

Valerie Boyer, a member of Nicolas Sarkozy’s right wing Les Republicaines party echoed Amiels criticism by also stating that the burkini is an affront to the dignity of women.

But her views are unlikely to be popular in the fashion industry, which is critical to the French economy. A growing number of design houses and retailers have now entered the burkini market.

While some big-name labels such as DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger and Dolce & Gabbana have gone beyond the burkini to design whole Islamic fashion collections, UK brand Marks & Spencer just launched its first burkini range in back in February, sparking criticism from France’s women’s rights minister Laurence Rossignol.

Rossignol told France’s RMC radio: “When brands invest in this Islamic garment market, they are shirking their responsibilities and are promoting women’s bodies being locked up.”

Since it announced its burkini day on Facebook earlier this month, Smile 13 has received bullets through the mail.

France first introduced a ban on Islamic headscarves in classrooms in 2004 along with all religious emblems and symbols. It then became the first European country to ban full-face veils in public places in 2010.


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