Burkini ban reverse: Sign of French resistance?

Burkini ban reverse: Sign of French resistance?
Comment: Overturning the burkini ban will do little to reverse the Islamophobic consensus in France that is stirred up by politicians and the media alike, writes Emma Ducasse
7 min read
29 Aug, 2016
Drafting inclusive policies is the only effective way to fight against extremism, writes Ducasse [Getty]

France's highest administrative court, the Conseil d'Etat, has rightfully ruled against the controversial ban of the Burkini - a full body swimsuit worn by some Muslim women on beaches - giving no credence to the reasons invoked by the French political elite for vociferously supporting the bans.

But this will do little to reverse a trend that political leaders have willingly harnessed: the stigmatisation of the Muslim community, the legitimisation of violence against Muslim women, and ultimately the institutionalisation of a cross-party Islamophobic consensus that's aggravating tensions and creating fertile ground for civil unrest, in the aftermath of the Nice attacks.

The unashamed support by politicians in France for the discriminatory bans against the swimwear stems more from an eagerness to restore their lacklustre image in the run-up to the presidential elections rather than to protect national security or uphold so-called French Republican values, as the Court's ruling seems to imply.

But the decision to invalidate the bans for serious breach of basic freedoms will neither put an end to the polemic nor to the government's racist political agenda, explicitly laid out by Prime Minister Valls who, defying the court's judgment, declared that the Burkini ban was a measure designed to fight against a retrograde and deadly Islamism.

Creating an Islamophobic consensus

Last Friday, France's Conseil d'Etat rightly rejected the Burkini ban that had been introduced by a mayor on the French Riviera in Villeneuve-Loubet near Nice. It stated that the ban represented a serious and clear breach of the law and individual freedoms, adding that wearing the swimsuit was not a proven risk to public order.

This long-awaited decision - which sets a precedent for the other thirty communes where similar bans were introduced - was welcomed by the Human Rights League (LDH) and Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) who had challenged the Mayor's ban.

The Islamophobic consensus has been allowed to flourish, despite criticism voiced by anti-racist organisations

The right-wing Mayors of Cannes and of Nice had promulgated the Burkini ban, forcing women to "wear clothes that are morally acceptable and in line with the principles of laïcité", a term which refers to French secularity or the principle of separation of church and state.

They claimed the swimsuit was a uniform symbolising Islamic terrorism which could pose a threat to public order. Other mayors followed suit basing their decisions on similar arguments, including a left-wing mayor in Sisco, Corsica, creating a domino effect across France. 

Although the bans were first introduced by right-wing and far-right mayors, the sensationalist headlines in the mainstream press coupled with the hysteria instigated by politicians bent on stirring up racist hatred for political gains have led politicians across the political spectrum to support the bans, thus creating a dangerous Islamophobic consensus in France, with a recent public opinion poll showing 64% support for the ban.

Although the court's unequivocal decision largely discredits the dubious reasons used to justify the ban, the consensus has been allowed to flourish, despite criticism voiced by anti-racist organisations and the international press.

Prime Minister Valls has stated he understands the concerns of the mayors, claiming the bans were not political but solely linked to national security, adding that the Burkini was a symbol of women's oppression. Left-wing leaders such as Mr Melenchon have the claimed the Burkini was a political provocation, adding that any public signs of religion were catastrophic.

In the run-up the presidential elections, French politicians across the political spectrum have indeed stooped to new lows

Other more neutral voices have emerged but regrettably very few have had the courage to condemn the misogynistic and Islamophobic measures, with only the Communist Party of France (PCF) and the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) overtly condemning them.

If anything, in the run-up the presidential elections, French politicians across the political spectrum have stooped to new lows in their efforts to convince public opinion that Burkinis are France's public enemy number one; a dangerous threat to the values of the French Republic.  In addition, they have suddenly portrayed themselves as fervent defenders of women's rights to outbid their competitors in the presidential race.

Even Women's Rights Minister Mrs Rossignol, felt the urge to condemn what she perceived as an "archaic item of clothing."

The international press has understandably not failed to mock the absurdity of the controversy, not to mention the questionable right of a mayor to rule on women's dress code. But however trivial debates over this clothing may seem, the concrete consequences of criminalising women's clothing are extremely dangerous, for it instills in the public's imagination a widespread lie that all Muslim women who wear a Burkini are potential terrorists, and humiliates them in the process.

Stoking civil unrest

The Burkini - originally designed by the Australian Aheda Zanetti in 2004 to enable Muslim women to bathe freely in public spaces - is a light swimsuit that leaves only the face, hands and feet uncovered.

It's hard to imagine IS tolerating the swimwear let alone on beaches where semi-nudity and gender mixing are the norm. This shows that some feminists are rather hasty in their judgment, in particular when evidence suggests that Muslim women who wear Burkinis in France are generally young and integrated into French society. Judging a book by its cover has never proven to be very insightful.

But whatever one may think of this attire, fining women who wear this clothing or indeed coercing women into removing the clothing on public beaches cannot be seen as anything other than degrading.

As feminist Arundhati Roy eloquently stated of the burqa: "When an attempt is made to coerce women out of the burka rather than creating a situation in which a woman can choose what she wishes to do, it's not about liberating her but about unclothing her. It's an act of violence, humiliation and cultural imperialism."

These racist reactions could not have spontaneously emerged had the political elite, and the mainstream media not created favourable conditions for such ideas

Alarming photographs and videos of armed police asking Muslim women to remove clothing and issuing fines for not "respecting good morals and secularism" on beaches in France have been published widely, causing international dismay.

The political elite's irresponsible actions and statements are thus consciously sustaining a racist, sexist and Islamophobic climate which then authorises the type of violent outbursts witnessed in Bastia, Corsica, when 200 Corsicans marched into Lupino - a housing estate with a high proportion of people of North African origin - shouting "this is our home", effectively demanding the exclusion of non-white French citizens.

These racist reactions could not have spontaneously emerged had the political elite, and the mainstream media not created favourable conditions for such ideas to flourish. Moreover, these shocking examples highlight the extent to which the Burkini ban controversy excludes Muslims, creating a feeling of injustice that arguably makes for fertile ground for radicalisation.

The Nice attack was indeed a terrible tragedy but let us not forget that the greatest casualities of IS have been Muslims, and that sustaining a climate of fear and exclusion of Muslims while passing off discriminatory measures as benevolent, is a dangerous game to play.

The Islamophobia of ministers, political leaders and editorialists negatively impacts the lives of millions of people in France; legitimising discrimination against Muslims, encouraging violence against women in Burkinis or headscarves and generally making the lives of French Muslims and anyone of North African origin a living nightmare.

More globally, the Islamophobic consensus is just another chapter in the history of selecting an easy scapegoat to blame for all society's ills, be it migrants, Romani travellers or Blacks. This is particularly true of an unpopular government that would rather pander to the racist and Islamophobic National Front electorate, than attempt to create an inclusive project for society based on solidarity and tolerance, which is the only path that makes sense in the fight against terrorism.

Emma Ducassé is a Franco-British citizen currently working as an English lecturer at the University of Toulouse II, France. Prior to this she worked as a journalist and takes an active interest in French and British politics.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.