Commentary by Gabriella Atkins
The recent decision by 26 mayors in the south of France to ban the ‘burquini’, and subsequent photographs appearing to show armed police forcing a woman to remove her clothing, has precipitated controversy and outrage. In London, in a protest outside the French embassy women united to demonstrate for their freedom to choose their attire. But what is the burquini and why has France decided to place what is construed as a control on the freedom of women?
The mayor of Cannes ruled that ‘Access to beaches and for swimming is banned to any person wearing improper clothes that are not respectful of accepted customs and secularism…Beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is liable to create risks of disrupting public order’. So the decision makes the assumption that the ‘burquini’ is a display of ‘religious affiliation’. This is a misconstruction of what the ‘burquini’ is.
The ‘burquini’ (or ‘burkini’, the terms are interchangeable) was designed by Aheda Zanetti in Australia in the early 2000s. Zanetti first designed the ‘hijood’ to allow Muslim girls to practice sport after watching her niece struggle to play in a school netball match. The burquini was thrust into the spotlight when Surf Lifesaving Australia commissioned a red and yellow lifesaver’s burquini to encourage the integration of Muslim boys and girls into surf lifesaving.
Zanetti emphasises that her creation was not derived from Islamic belief – indeed the burqa is never mentioned into the Qur’an. Instead her creation was named quickly, combining burqa, meaning coat or cover-all, and bikini to create the ‘burquini’. The item was designed to be an object of female freedom, allowing women to continue to observe their values of modesty whilst embracing the Australian outdoor lifestyle.
Since its inception, the ‘burquini’ has been purchased by a range of women, from varying cultural backgrounds, who wish to wear the item for a variety of reasons. These range from modesty to health to confidence. In 2011, British chef and TV personality Nigella Lawson wore a burquini on holiday in Australia to protect her skin.
To argue that the burquini offends French values is to overlook one of the fundamental pillars on which French society is based: liberté. The burquini was designed to liberate women, not enslave them.
The ban of the burquini is another step in the French government’s attempts to enforce its secular ideals on society. The 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State crystallised the secular nature of the state but simultaneously guaranteed the freedom of religion and the freedom to exercise it. This enshrined the doctrine of laïcité, broadly the absence of religious involvement in government affairs and state policies. In 2004 a law was passed forbidding the wearing of religious emblems in schools and colleges. In 2010 France became the first European country to ban the full-face veil in public.
There has been significant debate over the effectiveness of the decision to ban the veil. French data from 2015 has shown that 1,546 fines have been imposed under the law, but many of these women charged were repeat offenders. Indeed businessman Rachid Nekkaz has set up a fund from which these fines (normally 150 euros) can be paid. Furthermore, the decision to control the way in which women may dress surely only feeds straight into the hands of extremist propaganda.
The ban is due to be contested in France’s highest administrative court following objections from a human rights group and an anti-Islamophobia association.
The French mayors’ decision to ban the burquini ultimately represents a badly-considered knee-jerk reaction to the catastrophic and devastating terrorist attacks to which it has been subjected. Whilst it is possible to empathise with the rationale behind the decision, the application is harder to justify. Banning the burquini is a misplaced outlash. In a developed society, women have earned the right and liberty to choose how and in what manner they clothe themselves in public.
Burquini, tankini, bikini, swimming costume, g-string, mankini, speedos, trunks, wetsuits…when we start banning one, where does the list end?