Fifteen towns have now banned the full-body swimsuit, citing possible links between its religious symbolism and recent terror attacks in the country. The deputy mayor of Nice, the latest town to implement the ban, explained that the burkini was “not in keeping with our ideal of social relations.” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls also expressed his support for the ban, because a garment ““founded on the subjugation of women” was “not compatible with the values of France.”
Those French values were on full display in photographs shot on a beach in Nice, which appear to show armed police forcing a woman to take off her outer clothing. The spectacle struck many as menacing, almost medieval, revealing a deep intolerance for religious expression as well as an absurd notion of what constitutes national security. And in general, the practice of politicians legislating what women can or cannot wear is an unwelcome relic from the past.
The burkini ban is only the latest instance of the French government stigmatizing Muslim women in the name of secularism and security. Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2010 burqa ban also sparked debate about whether religious garb threatened French cultural values and whether the state could impinge on the religious expression of Muslim women. Of course, nuns’ habits, priestly robes, and the vestments of other faiths were not targeted in these waves of legislation. Laïcité, a near-sacred principle of secularism often cited in these instances, only seems to target Muslims.
Many argue that such bans only isolate Muslim women, therefore achieving the opposite of the integration that French politicians claim they desire. The burkini ban, in particular, contradicts the garment’s intended purpose. The swimsuit was invented in 2004 by an Australian woman, Aheda Zanetti, to encourage Muslim women to go outdoors, play sports, and swim, key aspects of life in Australia. As she wrote today for The Guardian:
When I invented the burkini in early 2004, it was to give women freedom, not to take it away. ... It symbolizes leisure and happiness and fun and fitness and health and now they are demanding women get off the beach and back into their kitchens? This has given women freedom, and they want to take that freedom away?