Ius Gentium

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


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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.

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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.

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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