After bans on full-face veils, head scarves in schools and rules about students’ skirt lengths, France’s perennial problem with Muslim women’s attire has taken its most farcical turn yet with a new controversy over the “burkini,” body-covering swimwear whose name is an amalgam of burqa and bikini. As of Thursday, five French mayors had banned the burkini, calling it, variously, a threat to public order, hygiene, water safety and morality, tantamount to a new weapon of war against the French republic. Thierry Migoule, an official with the city of Cannes, the first to ban the burkini, declared the swimwear “clothing that conveys an allegiance to the terrorist movements that are waging war against us.”
This hysteria threatens to further stigmatize and marginalize France’s Muslims at a time when the country is listing to the Islamophobic right in the wake of a series of horrific terrorist attacks. And with presidential elections scheduled for next spring and the right-wing National Front’s popularity on the rise, French officials and politicians have leapt to support the mayors.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Wednesday called the burkini a symptom of “the enslavement of women” that “is not compatible with the values of France” and said “the nation must defend itself.” France’s women’s rights minister, Laurence Rossignol, declared the burkini“the beach version of the burqa” and said “it has the same logic: Hide women’s bodies in order to better control them.”
Tell that to the creator of the burkini, the Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, who coined the name for a line of swimwear she introduced to offer women who did not want to expose their bodies — for whatever reason — the freedom to enjoy water sports and the beach. The British chef and television star Nigella Lawson wore a burkini on an Australian beach in 2011, presumably of her own free will. Meanwhile, the world has watched Muslims proudly compete at the Olympics in Rio in body-covering sportswear.
The fact that French parents are increasingly dressing their toddlers in remarkably similar suits to protect them from the sun, or that a wet suit also covers the head and body, adds to the hypocrisy of this debate. But at the heart of the dispute is something far darker: French politicians’ paternalistic pronouncements on the republic’s duty to save Muslim women from enslavement — by dictating to them what they can and can’t wear. The burkini rumpus is also a convenient distraction from the problems France’s leaders have not been able to solve: high unemployment, lackluster economic growth and a still very real terrorist threat.