The hurt and anger caused by French mayors' burkini bans

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France’s Council of State will on Friday announce its judgment on whether the ban of the burkini, recently applied by a number of mayors of coastal towns in France, is legal. The bans, imposed mostly in south-east France and amid the backdrop of recent Islamist terrorist attacks, supposedly target the full-body swimwear worn by some Muslim women. But the prohibitions also exclude dress that might threaten “public order”, and there was uproar this week after several reported incidents of police patrols intercepting Muslim women wearing headscarves on the beach. Carine Fouteau analyses a controversy that not only encroaches basic human rights, but which also has played into the hands of the Islamic State group which was behind this summer's terrorist attacks in France.

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“Stop humiliating us, stop policing us, stop executing violence on our bodies,” read a Tweet from Sana Saeed, a California-based writer and video film producer and anti-Islamophobia activist, who appeared to sum up the exasperation of many women around the world at the recent and growing number of bans on the wearing of the burkini on French beaches. “Stop being so insecure with your identity that you see our mere existence as a threat to yours,” Saeed added.

The bans have been introduced by 16 municipal authorities, mostly by conservative councils on the south-east Riviera coastline, including the city of Nice and the town of Cannes where in several incidents this week Muslim women wearing a headscarf and tunic, and not a burkini, have been asked to leave the beach or pay a fine.

The Daily Mail report of the photos of a woman in headscarf intercepted by police in Nice this week caused outrage across the social media. The Daily Mail report of the photos of a woman in headscarf intercepted by police in Nice this week caused outrage across the social media.

“Is humiliating women publicly part of the plan for liberating them?” asked US rabbi and author Rav Danya Ruttenberg in a Tweet on August 23rd after pictures (see one above) were published of one such incident in Nice. “How can one accept the public humiliation meted out to this headscarfed woman that the police force to undress?” Tweeted Widad Ketfi, a journalist with the online collective Bondy Blog, reacting to the same picture.

 Feiza Ben Mohamed is spokeswoman for the Federation of Muslims of Southern France (Fédération des Musulmans du Sud is head) and she has begun posting videos of what she calls “the hunt for headscarfed women” on her social media accounts. “An absolute shame on the country,” she commented with one of the videos. “The police make a woman with a headscarf undress. I feel like throwing up.”

In an opinion article for Middle East Eye, Widad Ketfi wrote of the paradox of French politicians “who want Muslim women to hide their political opinions but to discover their bodies”. Describing the burkini as “swimwear which resembles a diving suit, worn by conservative women”, Ketfi argued it would never have become an issue “if the women weren’t Muslim”. The supporters of the burkini bans “don’t want to liberate Muslim women, they want to undress them because, in reality, the aim is not, and never was and never will be, to emancipate women but only to control their bodies”.

The word shameful is an apt description ofthis anti-burkini controversy that occupies the French public space since the beginning of August, and which gives an idea of the likely debates to come during campaigning for next year’s presidential elections; Shameful because the bans appear to be a reaction to the recent terrorist attacks that have bloodied France. It is as if there is link between the jihadist killings and the wearing of this swimsuit. Shameful also because it signals, once again, the French obsession, even the French state’s obsession, with Muslim women.

Everything that could have been said seems to have been so by angry editorialists, in the press and the social media, and notably in the Anglophone world where there was more enthusiasm to relay their analyses than in France. The inherent contradiction of the bans, thought up by over-50 white men in a position of power, is obvious. “There is something inherently head-spinning about the so-called burkini bans that are popping up in coastal France,” wrote Amandaz Taub, a former human rights lawyer who commentates foreign policy, in The New York Times. “The obviousness of the contradiction - imposing rules on what women can wear on the grounds that it’s wrong for women to have to obey rules about what women can wear - makes it clear that there must be something deeper going on.”   This prohibition of the swimwear, which is a hand-me-down from France’s colonial past, is not intended to protect women from the patriarchy, argues Taub.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls called the burkini “the translation of a political project, of a counter society, notably founded on the enslavement of women” and which, as such, “is not compatible with the values of France and the republic”. But in fact the object is quite different, and that is to give the non-Muslim majority in France the sentiment that they can be protected in a country in transformation which refuses to see itself as it is – that is, culturally, racially and religiously diverse.

This fear, created by a perceived danger to French ‘identity’, is the subject of recurrent cleavages which are almost systematically fixated – in another specifically French phenomenon - with Muslim women. While this female population is most often relegated to the subordinate ranks of society, it supposedly carries a danger within. While these women are often confined to cleaning jobs, at night, or work as home helps, when they are not forced to stay at home because of the discriminations to which they fall victim, they are presented as a blotch to the definition of what it is to be French. It is striking to see that they are called upon to show “discretion” according to the term employed by Jean-Pierre Chevènement, head of the Foundation for Islam in France, at the very same moment that this invisibility is beginning to be questioned by the young women born in France to immigrant families and who claim for themselves the multiple ways in which to practice Islam, and sometimes the wearing of the headscarf as a symbol of their heritage.

The burkini is indeed just the ultimate example of this stigmatization which in recent history has targeted, among other things, the headscarf. Stigmatised in schools, where it has been banned since 2004, in universities – where conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist prime minister Manuel Valls agree that it is urgent to introduce a prohibition. But also in private companies, where every case that goes to an industrial tribunal causes a storm of controversy, and also on school trips, where accompanying mothers in headscarves run the risk of being prevented from joining excursions. Some school heads have openly questioned the wearing of “long black dresses”, while the full, face-hiding veil has been banned from public spaces since 2010.

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