Since the announcement of an ordinance banning the wearing of burkinis on the beaches of the French Mediterranean city of Cannes in late July, France has been swept up in a new wave of Islamophobia.
A further 17 municipalities have announced their own ordinances banning the burkini — the full-body swimsuit worn by some Islamic women. These bans have been endorsed not only by France's far right, but by the Socialist Party Prime Minister Manuel Valls.
On August 27, France's highest administrative court suspended the bans after they were challenged by rights groups. However, the ruling still gives local authorities the ability to impose the bans if they can show a “proven risk” to public order.
Those supporting the bans have sought to justify them in terms of defending women's rights, France's secular society and social order. But in reality, they are sexist and anti-secular — and promote the further marginalisation of France's Islamic community.
The July 28 ordinance in Cannes prohibiting the burkini states: “Access to beaches and swimming in Cannes is prohibited … until August 31, to any person not properly dressed, in a way which is respectful of morality and secularism and that respects the rules for hygienic and safe swimming.”
David Lisnard, Cannes's Mayor and a member of Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing Les Republicains party, has defended the city's ordinance on the basis that only radicals would be upset by it. Lisnard described the burkini as “the uniform of extremist Islamism, not of the Muslim religion”.
Lisnard has also argued that the ordinance is needed to maintain public order against a background of terror threats. But Lisnard's argument only makes sense if you accept the motivations that he projects onto women who choose to wear a burkini.
France's Human Rights League and the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, on the other hand, have challenged the bans as an illegal restriction on the religious rights of individuals.
However, the Nice administrative tribunal's ruling, that upheld the ban in Nice, said: “The state of emergency context and recent Islamist attacks in particular in Nice … wearing a distinctive dress, other than a usual swimwear, can indeed be interpreted as not being, in this context, a simple sign of religiosity.”
Supporting the bans, Valls said the burkini represents “the enslavement of women” and reflects an “archaic vision” of feminine modesty “not compatible with the values of France”. Valls also endorsed the idea that banning the wearing of burkinis could contribute to public safety by saying “in the face of provocation, the nation must defend itself”.
Although Valls has avoided supporting the idea of a France-wide ban of the burkini, this should not be seen as opposition on Valls's part to France-wide attempts at controlling the clothes of Muslim women. In April, he publicly called for a ban on wearing hijabs at France's universities.
The bans on burkinis are not the first time that women's rights have been mobilised in France to justify bans on the clothes of Muslim women. Similar arguments were made in support of the 2004 law on secularism and conspicuous religious symbols in public schools, which banned the wearing of hijabs in public schools.
There was also controversy in 2010 around the decision by the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) to stand Ilham Mousaid, a member of the far-left party who chose to wear a hijab, as a candidate in regional elections, and to support the 2010 law banning the wearing of face coverings in public. This was effectively a ban on the niqab, although popularly referred to as the burqa ban.
This mobilisation of public concern over the rights of women is problematic on a number of levels. First, as University of Toulouse academic Rim-Sarah Aloune suggests, it creates the idea that the struggle of women over the right to choose how they dress only operates to reduce the amount of clothing that women are required to wear. But, as Aloune says, “women's rights imply the right for a woman to cover up”.
Indeed, women workers in a number of Western countries have struggled to desexualise the clothes they have been required to wear — for example, in the airline industry.
Secondly, it creates a false dichotomy between “archaic” and “misogynistic” Islamic cultures and “progressive” Western cultures. This dichotomy ignores the sexism that exists in Western societies.
Finally, these bans in the name of protecting the rights of Muslim women in France have all worked to exclude Muslim women from French social life — whether it is from schools; standing for election to public office; going out in public or swimming at the beach. This alone demonstrates the thoroughly sexist character and effect of such bans.
Defence of France's secular society may seem an easy argument to support bans against “religious clothing” but it isn't. This is particularly the case with efforts to justify bans on the burkini — its advocates and defenders are also arguing that the burkini is not religious dress.
This sleight of hand is primarily aimed to cover the idea that the bans are themselves Islamophobic. However, arguments justifying attacks on Muslims in the name of defending secularism (which are not limited to France) are clearly hypocritical. They are overwhelming concerned with the actions of marginalised Muslims, with little concern over the influence of Christianity on Western states.
But they also reflect an extremely one sided understanding of secularism. Secularism is not simply a question of religion not influencing the state. Secularism is also about freedom for people to practice their religions without interference from the state.
Part of the problem with the debates around the clothes of Muslim women in France is that decisions by individual Muslims regarding the clothes that they choose to wear is perceived as being influenced by religion in a way that clothing decisions — and other actions — by non-Muslims are not.
This results in Muslims, particularly Muslim women, being seen as having less agency in their actions, particularly their choice of dress. It results in the most mundane actions being perceived as being religious when performed by Muslim women. An example of this can be seen with the 2004 ban on hijabs in public schools.
In response to this ban, some Muslim students began wearing bandanas — which other people in French society also wore. In some schools, the wearing of bandanas by Muslim girls was then policed by schools and if a bandana was deemed “too modest” then the wearer was liable to be excluded from school. This position was upheld by the French Council of State — France's highest court — in 2006 on the basis that the bandana was deemed by the court to have been worn for a religious reason.
The wave of bans against the burkini is also motivated on the basis of promoting “public order”. Instead, it will achieve the opposite.
As NPA member Ugo Paleta points out, linking the wearing of particular clothes associated with Muslims, such as the burkini, with support for terrorism creates an image of all Muslims as potential threats to French society. It works to strengthen the discourse within France regarding the alleged “incompatibility of Islam with the French Republic”. The effect is that Muslims come to be seen as a “foreign body” within French society.
This language serves to not only justify the draconian actions of French police in fining and excluding Muslim women from the beach for wearing burkinis and other covering clothing.
It also legitimises the rising levels of Islamophobic violence against France's Islamic community — and places responsibility for this violence at the feet of the community rather with the perpetrators of that violence.
[Lisbeth Latham maintains Revitalising Labour, which follows the labour movement internationally and is following the events in France.]