Source: Religion News Service
By Tom Heneghan
(Tom Heneghan is a correspondent based in Paris)
PARIS (RNS) Burkinis aren’t showing up at the beaches on either side of the English Channel yet, but the thought that the full head-to-ankle swimsuit might catch on among Muslim women in Europe has already sparked lively debates in Britain and France.
The modest Muslim beachwear, which looks like a loose-fitting wetsuit with a hoodie, has been around for about a decade. It has also been banned elsewhere, especially in public swimming pools in Europe and at some Moroccan beach resorts popular with foreign tourists.
But most non-Muslims in Europe are only finding out about it now because the popular British department store chain Marks & Spencer has just launched its own burkini line in Europe to appeal to a growing niche market for “Islamic fashion,” combining modern design with Muslim principles of modesty.
The arrival of burkinis in mainstream department stores has once again highlighted the differences between the pragmatic British approach toward multiculturalism and France’s determined efforts to fend off any challenges to its official policies of secularism.
There are about 2.7 million Muslims in Britain, or 4.5 percent of the population, and 5 million, or 8 percent of the population, in France.
Marks & Spencer has stores across Europe, Asia and, in the Middle East, where it has been selling burkinis for several years. Its online shop promotes two styles in English, French, German, Spanish and Dutch.
House of Fraser, a rival British department store group, has come out with its own line. Both chains call the swimsuit “burkini,” a linguistic mashup of “burka” and “bikini,” but neither mentions religion in its advertising.
In the “nation of shopkeepers,” as Napoleon is said to have called Britain, the burkini’s defenders present it as a product that meets consumer demand. “We have sold this item for a number of years and it is popular with our customers internationally,” a Marks & Spencer spokeswoman said.
The conservative tabloid Daily Mail called it “the ultimate proof Britain is truly multicultural” and noted that labels such as H&M, DKNY, Mango and Uniqlo had recently launched Muslim-themed fashion collections.
Some critics decried the swimsuit as sexist; one asked why women had to “dress up like frogmen.” But others defended the right of Muslim women to choose. “If I want to buy a burkini from M&S, I bloody well will,” journalist Remona Aly wrote in an op-ed for the liberal Guardian newspaper.
Across the channel in France, where the government worries about any sign that its Muslim minority is not fully adapting to the French way of life, the issue quickly escalated into political polemics that presented the burkini as the first step toward women’s oppression and Muslim radicalism.