Ius Gentium

University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for International and Comparative Law Fellows discuss international and comparative legal issues

Burkini & Beachside Oppression: Islamophobia Wave Hits France


J. Michal Forbes

Warm sand, clear blue skies and a seamlessly endless ocean. France’s beaches along the Mediterranean have been known as some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, as well as some of the sexiest.  Whether it’s Cannes or Saint-Tropez, visitors expect the same things from French’s shores—sunlight, small swimsuits and sexy women. Then along came the burkini, which to some, threatened France’s cultural beach identity.

Last month, amidst much international scrutiny and speculation, over 30 French towns banned the burkini from their shores.[i] The first question that comes to most people’s mind is what exactly is a burkini.  Designed by Australian Aheda Zanetti, the burkini is a custom swimsuit designed specifically for Muslim women who adhere to the Islamic tradition of dressing modestly.[ii]  The burkini resembles a full body suit and covers the whole body with the exception of the swimmer’s face, hands and feet.


Within a matter of hours, the ban on burkinis took social media by storm and suddenly the entire world was looking at France’s shores. French Premier Manuel Valls even supported the towns that wanted to ban the burkinis claiming that France’s beaches should be “free of wardrobe associated with religion and politics”.[iii] He also said the burkini is “an expression of a political project, a counter-society, based notable on the enslavement of women.” Social scientists around the world even chimed in, alleging that the ban was not about swimwear, but about protecting France’s non-Muslim majority from having to confront a changing word and protecting Muslim women from patriarchy. [iv]

France’s ban on burkinis, did not last however. In matter of a few weeks, France’s highest courts held that mayors do not have the right to ban burkinis.[v] Since 1905, the French government has practiced laïcité, under which the government does not recognize any kind of religious influence in governmental affairs. The current ban on burkinis was seen by some as a violation of laïcité, and the government’s interface in religious affairs.



The question arises: is the ban on burkinis really an attempt to maintain and cultivate the culture of France’s shores? It may have been originally, but around the world many critics see it as France’s latest attempt to suppress the Islamic faith within its country.  In light of the recent terrorist attacks in Nice this past summer, the ban, which was enacted weeks later, is more like Islamophobia masked as cultural preservation.

The ban on the burkinis was nothing more than a push to further ban Islamic garments. A movement that first began in 2004, when the French government previously banned Muslim headscarves (hijabs) from schools. Then again, in 2011, when France became the first European country to ban wearing in public the burqa, a full-body covering that includes a mesh over the face, and the niqab, a full-face veil with an opening for the eyes. Though the ban was ultimately upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in 2014, debate still occurred across the world whether or not this constituted religious oppression. This burkini ban is just the latest law enacted to suppress Islam within France.


The debate surrounding the Ban on Burkinis is far from over. This issue will likely reemerge in the next French presidential election slated for 2017. There is no doubt that the issue of keeping France “homogenous “will be at the forefront.  Once again, burkinis may be banned from France’s shores.


If the ban on burkinis becomes national law in France where does religious oppression stop? Will nuns be prohibited from wearing coif? Perhaps priest will be prohibited from wearing clerical collars? However in a country where Catholics make up almost 88% of the population those bans are likely not to happen.[vi] The real issue is Islam and Islamophobia within France.  France’s attempts to remain homogeneous in a world that is multicultural could lead to negative implications for France. And to think, the ban on burkinis was the spark that started the fire.


J. Michal Forbes is a proud native of Prince George’s County, Maryland, Ms. Forbes has a fiery passion for international law, travel and frozen yogurt. After receiving her B.A. in Political Science from the University of Maryland, Baltimore she taught ESOL in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area before joining the US Peace Corps in 2011. Ms. Forbes served in the Peace Corps in Ukraine from 2011 to 2013, in a small town between the Red Sea and the Black Sea in Crimea. Fluent in Russian, Ms. Forbes soon caught the travel bug and traveled/worked extensively throughout Eastern Europe during her 27 month commitment. Currently a 3L, Ms. Forbes is a member of the International Law Society, Immigration Law Society, Black Law Student Association and the Women Lawyers as Leaders Initiative. She has worked for Maryland Legal Aid and the NAACP’s Office of the Attorney General. She was recently awarded the honor of being named Article Editor with the University of Baltimore Law Forum, a scholarly legal journal focused on rising issues in Maryland. It is her dream to work for the U.S. government assisting with asylum seekers and refugee. In her free time, Ms. Forbes enjoys eating frozen yogurt with her husband and learning Arabic.


[i] http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/24/europe/woman-burkini-nice-beach-incident-trnd/

[ii] The Surprising Australian origin of the ‘burkini’, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/08/17/the-surprising-australian-origin-story-of-the-burkini/

[iii] Manuel Valls: Burkini ‘not compatible’ with French values, http://www.politico.eu/article/manuel-valls-burkini-not-compatible-with-french-values/

[iv] France’s ‘Burkini’ Bans Are About More Than Religion or Clothing, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/19/world/europe/frances-burkini-bans-are-about-more-than-religion-or-clothing.html?_r=0

[v] French court suspends burkini ban, http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/26/europe/france-burkini-ban-court-ruling/

[vi] The Church in Decline: France’s Vanishing Catholics, http://www.ibtimes.com/church-decline-frances-vanishing-catholics-1125241

Author: Ius Gentium

Ius Gentium is a legal forum for the University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for International and Comparative Law Fellows to write on and discuss international and comparative legal issues.

7 thoughts on “Burkini & Beachside Oppression: Islamophobia Wave Hits France

  1. I think that you are probably right that the ban has less to do with maintaining beach culture in southern France, and is more likely a knee-jerk reaction to something related to Islam having a new presence in French life. I never heard of the burkini until a few weeks ago. To me it doesn’t appear to threaten beach culture anymore then a wetsuit, with which these laws presumably didn’t have an issue. The emergence of laws targeting a swimsuit, which primarily appeals to a minority religion, comes off as a very thinly veiled attempt to target a potential new facet of that religion’s cultural presence.

    However, it may be worth bringing up, when you mentioned that bans on Catholic oriented symbols and clothing in France would be unlikely to happen, that such a thing has happened in recent history. Back in the early 2000s France banned the wearing of any explicitly religious clothing or symbols in public schools. Many argue that it was aimed at head scarves, but it also applied to the wearing of crucifixes or yamakas (see link below). France has a strong secular streak that can be traced back to the French Revolution, when the Catholic Church was actually kicked out of the country for a couple of years.

    France has a history of limiting the influence of religion in public spaces, but I don’t doubt that these laws were primarily motivated by a desire to limit the identifiable presence of Muslims specifically. Again, the burkini itself is no more unusual then a wetsuit, which can regularly be seen at the shore. The only remaining reason these towns seemed to have cared enough to specifically target this one article of clothing was because the garment was associated with Islam.


  2. I had the opportunity to speak with someone a few months ago after the Paris bombings. She is French and her sister is currently a teacher in Paris. She told me that cultural bias is so strong and lack of willingness to assimilate Muslims into the general population that it is no wonder that France experienced the “terror” attacks–she painted a dim picture of xenophobia in the country characterized by oppression and a severe lack of inclusion. These attacks, in reality are probably more closely related to oppression and frustration with the French government than anything else. I think that France needs to find a way to incorporate and preserve their distinct French identity (whatever that may be) without hindering the rights of others.

    • Exactly! In this modern world is hard for ANY country to remain homogenous without oppression a particular social group. I am interested to know if your teacher friend has any insight on whether or not the younger millennial population shares the same xenophobic views or if it is just the older baby boomer population

      • I can attest that the GenXers have the same biases. While I believe there’s more acceptance of others among the Millennials (certainly in the US), but to the extent that’s true, we’re products of our environment. I recall the moment when, at nineteen, I realized racism was still rampant in my peer group. A 16-year-old kid, who I guess was a very early Millennial, gleefully regaled the story of a black girl hired as a server in the mom & pop place where I was working. She was subjected to customers saying “N**r get me this,” food thrown at her, the whole nine yards. I was stunned.

  3. I find it quite telling how much the hostility towards anyone non-European has grown. The degree to which the burkini ban went was very surprising to me, though: bared breasts are OK on a beach but fully clothed is not?!? Really?!?

    In 1993, I did an exchange trip to Montpelliar, France, with a student whose family hailed from Algiers. She didn’t even wear a hajib, yet even so, she was targeted. Even back in 1993, there was rampant nationalism. I remember one of her classmates cat calling her as one of the “cous cous lovers” polluting France.

    I’m curious what would have happened if the French courts had not invalidated the ban. A Turkish case (the name of the case escapes me) allowed a ban on wearing a hajib in its universities.

    • I guess they could go back the European Court of Human Rights. Being as though wearing burkini does not at all create any kind of secutiry risks, they may be successful.

      Yes! I am aware of that Turkish case! I can’t remember the name! But I remember being a tad confused because Turkey is an Islamic country and I couldn’t figure out why that ban was even thought of in the first place!

Leave a Reply to Alexander Ayer Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s