Emily Kowalik ’18
Assistant Opinions Editor
France adopted a constitutional concept of “laïcité”, an absolute separation of church and state, under which religious symbols are banned in public. Under this law, several French mayors created a ban on the right of women to wear burkinis, swimsuits that leave only the face, hands and feet exposed in public. They banned this garment over the summer under the pretext that burkinis pose, as the New York Times reports, a “threat to public order, hygiene, water safety and morality.
” The ban on the “burkini,” a mixture of the words burqa and bikini, does not represent the first legal restriction France has imposed regarding Muslim women’s attire. Previous bans include those upon full-face veils and head scarves in schools as well as regulations regarding students’ skirt lengths.
The burkini ban masquerades as a struggle to support both secularism and feminism while simultaneously providing for intrusion into the religious freedom and equality of all people. Under the flag of “laïcité” and freeing of women from oppression, women are being stripped of their fundamental right to practice their religious beliefs and make their own decisions as to what is appropriate to wear. French cities are essentially implementing legal restrictions to regulate what should be an individual choice.
Some who support the French laws banning a public display of religious symbols defend the argument, saying such laws prevent a slippery slope of “extremist behavior.” Some believe that allowing the burkini might lead to manifestations of religious beliefs and practices that infringe upon citizens’ rights, such as the legalization of swimming pools segregated by gender.
However, such fear is no excuse for a ban that serves to transgress rights and violate the dignity of women, who are confronted by police officers and made to pay fines or change clothing if they wish to remain at the beaches.
This ban demonstrates the mixture of fear and resentment that has amassed from the aftershock of the horrific acts of terrorism France has suffered. At a time when steps should be taken to dissuade people from a hysteria that leads to the stigmatization and demeaning of France’s Muslims, the French cities which have enacted these bans serve only to increase strife and rouse resentment with this bigoted law.
Thierry Migoule, head of municipal services for the city of Cannes and the first to ban the burkini, went as far as to say that the garment is “clothing that conveys an allegiance to the terrorist movements that are waging war against us.”
This ban appears to be an attempt to impose a different set of values or pressure French citizens of certain traditions to adapt to the culture and practices of the majority. Muslim women, or any women seeking to dress modestly in public, are basically being told that their desire to cover their bodies is against Western values, and thus not an acceptable practice.
Some argue that there is a disparity between the application of this law with regard to different religious groups. For example, some point out that Ultra-Orthodox Jews or Catholic nuns, who dress in full habit do not have this ban applied to them in practice. Secular law should provide for tolerance and impartiality, not demonstrate bigotry and favoritism.