In France, it's quite normal to see women sunbathing on the beach topless. But if you cover up too much, you will now risk fines or jail time.
A French court just upheld a ban on the "burkini" at public pools on the grounds that it violates France’s deeply-held secular principles.
A burkini is a piece of swimwear very similar to a wetsuit, but designed specifically for Muslim women who observe the Islamic tradition of modest dress. They are worn only by a small number of French women, but they are frequently in French headlines, banned on this beach or that.
Now, the ban has come to public pools. Muslim women in France hoping to beat the heat this summer with a dip at the public pool will now have to violate their religious convictions to do so.
Burkini proponents say that it is blatantly discriminatory, but opponents argue it is necessary to protect France’s secular cultural identity.
The Burkini Battle
The debate over Islam's public role in France resurfaced yet again when the city of Grenoble voted to allow burkinis in public pools following pressure from local activists.
But an administrative tribunal reversed that decision, arguing that allowing religious swimwear in public pools runs counter to France’s secular values – a decision which was upheld in French courts.
Allowing burkinis, it was argued, would violate "the equal treatment of users, so that the neutrality of the public service is compromised."
A "separatism law" passed last year by the Macron administration backs that up; it prohibits any act where the goal is “to give in to sectarian demands with religious aims."
Grenoble Mayor Eric Piolle said that the change to allow burkinis was put in place to encourage equal access to public pools for everyone, regardless of faith. "All we want is for women and men to be able to dress how they want," he stated.
But others disagreed, believing that there’s no place for such overt religious displays in public life. On Twitter, Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin described the anti-burkini ruling as "a victory for the law against separatism, for secularism and beyond that, for the whole republic.”
Symbol of Oppression… Or Just a Swimsuit?
Anti-burkini activists view it as a sign of what they believe to be the slow "Islamization" of France. They say allowing Islamic expression not only erodes France’s national identity, but also endangers women.
"It's a sign of separatism and of the submission of women, the opposite of our values and our constitution," insists controversial right-wing leader Marine La Pen. "This is how Islamist fundamentalists take over. Victories involving food or clothing may seem innocuous, but are very grave."
Opponents also view the modest dress some Muslim women wear as a symbol of male oppression and patriarchy.
But many Muslim women say they’re not being forced to wear anything – they choose to wear a burka as a proud expression of their Islamic faith. As one activist put it, "they think our husbands or fathers make us wear it, which is totally false."
Who is the real oppressor, she asks?
"Not letting women wear what they want is as oppressive as forcing women to wear the veil. It's two sides of the same coin: Oppressors who want to impose clothing restrictions on women."
What do you think? Can banning religious swimwear be justified on the grounds of protecting France’s secular identity? Or is this a case of unjust religious discrimination?