Why responsible travelers should oppose the French burkini ban

LAST WEEK, FRENCH PRESIDENT Francois Hollande payed his respects to the late fashion designer Sonia Rykiel, praising her clothing for having “offered women freedom of movement.” France is now banning an item of clothing designed to do exactly that.

As responsible travelers, the burkini ban is an issue we should feel strongly about — upholding human rights is a pillar of the responsible tourism movement and the world’s biggest tourism destination appears to be taking a backward step by restricting women’s right to adhere to their own religious beliefs and cover up on the beach.

How we dress when we travel is a key issue in responsible tourism, especially for women. Should we cover up? How do we ensure we don’t offend our host communities? It’s something that, as the boss of a responsible travel company, I talk about a lot. And when it comes to responsible tourism we don’t necessarily support the ‘Wear what you want’ message the protesters outside French embassies in the UK were extolling yesterday — instead we advise that we should dress to respect local cultural traditions.

You could argue that the cultural traditions of France don’t include the burkini. And indeed, France is outspokenly a secular country — ‘la laicite’ is as fundamental part of its constitution — but it is also a country with a deep respect for women’s rights. Those against the burkini argue that it is a symbol of oppression against women. But it’s not: the burkini was, in the same spirit as Sonia Rykiel, specifically designed to give women freedom — giving them access to enjoy the beach and the sea whatever the restrictions of their religious beliefs. What’s particularly secular about attempting to dictate what a woman’s religious beliefs should be? How is that level of paternalism compatible with a respect for women’s independence and her basic human rights? And how can we be responsible travelers if we refuse to acknowledge a woman’s autonomy?

John Dalhuisen, the Europe Director of Amnesty International, commented, “The French authorities should drop the pretence that these measures do anything to protect the rights of women. Rather, invasive and discriminatory measures such as these restrict women’s choices, violate their rights and lead to abuse…These bans do nothing to increase public safety, but do a lot to promote public humiliation.”

An estimated 86.3 million tourists visited France in 2015, almost 6 million more than the USA. As a tourism destination with global appeal it could have real power to share a message of tolerance, to hold itself up as a champion of women’s rights irrespective of religious belief or cultural background. While the French courts ruled last week that burkini bans were not legal, many local mayors are defying the court order, and are continuing the bans. I hope that its authorities will follow the advice of Amnesty and other human rights organizations fighting the burkini ban and give back to its women the freedom to bathe in peace.

French burkini ban row escalates after clothing incident at Nice beach

Pictures of woman removing long-sleeved top surrounded by police cause outrage as France’s top court prepares to review bans

A sign at Ponchettes beach in Nice shows the law forbidding the wearing of clothing such as the burkini. Photograph: Jean Christophe Magnenet/AFP/Getty

A sign at Ponchettes beach in Nice shows the law forbidding the wearing of clothing such as the burkini. Photograph: Jean Christophe Magnenet/AFP/Getty

First published on Wed 24 Aug 2016 19.03 BST

The political row in France over mayors banning the burkini has intensified after a woman in a headscarf was photographed on a beach in Nice removing a long-sleeved top while surrounded by armed police.

The series of pictures, taken by a local French news photographer, showed a woman dressed in leggings, a long-sleeved tunic and headscarf being approached by four officers. As the police stand around her, she removes her long-sleeved top, revealing a short-sleeved top underneath. It is unclear whether or not the woman was ordered to do so. In another image, a police officer appears to write out a fine.

A spokesman for Vantage News, which released the pictures in the UK, said they were taken at about 11am (10am BST) on Tuesday. “The woman was fined, she left the beach and so did the police,” the spokesman said.

On Thursday, the council of state, France’s highest administrative court, will examine a request by the French Human Rights League to scrap the burkini bans. Lawyers argue that the short-term decrees are illegal.

The Nice mayor’s office denied that she had been forced to remove clothing, telling Agence France-Presse that the woman was showing police the swimsuit she was wearing under her tunic over a pair of leggings.

The woman was wearing ordinary clothes and not a burkini, or full-body swimsuit. The photographer noticed the police presence, but was standing far from the scene and took the pictures with a long lens, his French photo agency told newspaper Libération.

Last week, Nice banned the burkini on its beaches, following about 15 seaside areas in south-east France where mayors have done the same.

Nice’s deputy mayor, Christian Estrosi, from the centre-right Les Républicains party, said a municipal police team had “acted perfectly to make sure that [the] decree was respected”. He threatened legal action against anyone disseminating pictures of municipal police. A total of 24 women have been stopped by police in the city since the burkini ban came into force.

The pictures of the woman removing the item of clothing were met with outrage. “I am so ashamed,” tweeted the French feminist Caroline De Haas.

Accounts of other women being stopped by police for wearing Muslim headscarves and long-sleeved clothing on beaches caused fury among the ruling Socialist party and rights groups.

In Cannes, a 34-year-old mother of two described how she had been stopped and fined on a beach, where she was sitting with her children, while wearing clothes and a headscarf.

“I was sitting on a beach with my family. I was wearing a classic headscarf. I had no intention of swimming,” said the former flight attendant from Toulouse, giving her name only as Siam.

Speaking to BFMTV, she said three police officers had approached her and said a decree issued by the mayor of Cannes stipulated that everyone had to wear correct and appropriate clothing, and that she should tie her headscarf round her head as a bandana or leave the beach.

She told the police that she thought her clothing was normal and appropriate, she had not shocked anyone and there was no law stopping her being dressed as she was.

“I wasn’t in a burkini, I wasn’t in a burqa, I wasn’t naked, so I considered my clothing was appropriate,” she said. She described a mini-riot around her as about 10 people ran over in support, telling the police that the family was not bothering anyone, while about 10 others verbally insulted her. “There were insults like ‘Go home’, ‘We don’t want that here’, ‘France is a Catholic country’. My daughter was crying, she didn’t understand why her mother was being asked to leave.”

She was fined by police, who wrote on her ticket that her clothing did not conform with “good manners” or French secularism.

Mathilde Cusin, a journalist who was at the scene, said: “Some people clearly applauded the police . People asked her to leave or take off her headscarf. It felt like I was watching a pack turn on a woman seated on the ground in tears with her daughter.”

The mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, told magazine L’Obs that he supported the police who had taken the decision to enforce the ban on any “ostentatious outfits” at the beach.

Other footage, posted on Twitter by Feiza Ben Mohamed of the Nice-based Federation of Muslims in the South, appeared to show a woman in headscarf, trousers and tunic top being apprehended by police for standing on a beach. A police officer explained that her way of dressing could be a public order risk.

Nouvelle vidéo de la chasse aux femmes voilées à #Nice06 Saison 1 / épisode 2 #BurkiniGate pic.twitter.com/XJNKTh2Rdk

— Feiza Ben Mohamed (@FeizaK) August 23, 2016

The Socialists said the actions of police and bystanders towards Siam in Cannes showed a “particularly dangerous” excess and were “incompatible with the law”.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith requested urgent talks with the interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, citing the “growing fear of stigmatisation of Muslims in France”.

Afterwards, Cazeneuve said: “The implementation of secularism and the option of adopting such decrees must not lead to stigmatisation or the creation of hostility between French people.”

On Thursday, the council of state, France’s highest administrative court, will examine a request by the French Human Rights League to scrap the burkini bans. Lawyers argue that the short-term decrees are illegal.

The bans follow the Bastille Day attack in Nice and the murder of a priest in Normandy. The various mayoral decrees do not explicitly use the word burkini, instead they ban “beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation,” citing reasons such as the need to protect public order, hygiene or French laws on secularism.

But wearing a burkini remains legal in France. It is also legal to wear in public a Muslim headscarf that does not cover the face.

The burkini bans have prompted a row over the French principle of laïcité (secularism), amid accusations that politicians are twisting and distorting this principle for political gain, and to target Muslims.

The French republic is built on a strict separation of church and state, intended to foster equality for all private beliefs. In theory, the state is neutral in terms of religion and allows everyone the freedom to practise their faith as long as there is no threat to public order.

Benoît Hamon, a former education minister running to be the Socialists’ presidential candidate in the 2017 election, said a woman being stopped by police for wearing a headscarf on a beach made a mockery of French secularism and warned against “an obsessive oneupmanship against Muslims” by politicians.

The Green party senator Esther Benbassa tweeted: “Women in headscarves stopped by police on the beach. Secularism? No. Harassment. Anti-religious persecution.”

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In this image taken from video, Nesrine Kenza, who says she is happy to be free to wear a burkini, and two unidentified friends rest on the beach in Marseille, France. (AP Photo)

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The latest French fashion obsession isn’t on display on Paris runways but on the beach towels of Muslim women on the Riviera. The real craze, however, has nothing to do with apparel choices, and arguably little to do with the women themselves.

Following July’s deadly attack in Nice, a wave of xenophobia has inspired 30 coastal districts to ban the burkini, a full-body swimsuit resembling a wetsuit-niqab-ninja hybrid, intended to help women enjoy sun and surf while abiding by “modest” dress codes. Suddenly what started as a pragmatic sportswear option has been painted as a Muslim extremist “provocation.”

Last Friday, an administrative court effectively suspended the Burkini ban as an infringement on personal rights. However, opportunistic local politicians continue to grandstand in defiance, capitalizing on a xenophobic far-right populist surge. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy claimed he would try to impose a constitutional nationwide ban on burkinis, suggesting that the essence of French secular law was threatened by a few women sunning in pastel unitards.

The rash of burkini backlash is fueled by the ingrained French principle of laïcité, a distinct concept of militant civic secularism. This runs counter to the principle underlying “immigrant integration” policies: multiculturalism, inclusive of Islam. The murder of staff at the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo and other assaults at iconic cultural spaces like a Paris rock concert have stoked a panicked sense that French national identity is under attack. But the byproduct of the ethnic and religious fissures are not, as the far-right suggests, Muslim“extremism,” which is present in a negligible sliver of French society. Rather, the alienation of France’s Muslim minority is expressed in social despair, class and housing segregation, and, occasionally, the explosive language of a riot.

France has previously imposed similar restrictions, including a 2010 “burqa ban” on the full-face veil in public—but these have mainly been justified (controversially) on grounds of public security or civic cohesion. The burkini ban seems to reach further by treating a woman’s private choice of dress as a political offense.

According to Davidson College sociologist Natalie Deckard, compared to other liberal democracies, France’s political identity is framed around uniformity and exclusivity against Otherness:

The French conceive of minority status as a passing phase before assimilation into the French dominant culture.… The French are taking out their aggression against Islam on the usual victims of aggression of any type: the most vulnerable. By asserting control over women’s bodies, they are responding to the threat of terrorism by trying to break the will of the fractious Muslim minority.

French officialdom’s ham-fisted attempts to shield Muslim women from oppression actually seems to wear down their autonomy. One woman explained to The Guardian how the ban had made her feel chillingly self-conscious in public, even after the court’s intervention:

The ban and the row over burkinis make me feel very sad and it seems unfair…. We pay taxes like everyone else and I just want to do some exercise for my health on a public beach.

The simple recreational desire she expressed contrasts jarringly with the fashion-police agenda. The heart of Muslim discontent lies far from the coast, however: It’s rooted in the embattled Parisian cités—the suburban immigrant enclaves full of bitter youth, known for outbreaks of rioting in recent years —that France’s political establishment makes invisible while obsessing over bikini lines.

The ban’s material effects, meanwhile, remain ambiguous: Just 30 Burkini fines (38 euros each) have been issued, all in Cannes and Nice. This has been offset partially by one French businessman’s campaign to personally pay women’s fines in a kind of burkini jubilee. There has also been a paradoxical tripling of burkini sales, according to BBC, now that they have come to represent fashion contraband.

Burkinigate isn’t about the visual symbolism of Muslim “modesty,” but official humiliation of the Muslim community: sending a message that they are not welcome and “their women” will be ruthlessly marginalized. Even if French Muslimahs all wore pink thongs to the beach tomorrow, the idea would still be not so much to force women to change but to invent a pretext for excluding them, and simultaneously affirm the supposedly shared identity of “mainstream” liberal Frenchness.

The state-imposed “liberation” leaves Muslim women silenced, deprived of agency as their bodies are reduced to a proxy ideological battleground. Agnes De Feo, a sociologist who studies the politics of French Muslim women’s dress, says via e-mail from Paris that policies like the “burqa ban,” in their zealous imposition of supposedly “universal” Western norms, overlook the complexities of hybrid identities within marginalized minority communities:

Muslim women wearing headscarves are mostly born in France, they were educated in the schools of the republic and are well aware of themselves with a free will…. most curious is that these women say they are feminists and agree with the feminist struggle of saying: my body belongs to me.

Yet burkini bodies may actually signify a kind of rebellion. The design was created by an Australian designer to help give women greater access to swimming recreation. After years of criticism from religious conservatives that the design was unacceptably modern, now the same swimwear innovation is branded as jihadi chic by “Western” secular reactionaries.

Orthodox underpinnings aside, perhaps Burkinitas “wear” an individual aesthetic vernacular that others simply misread as a medieval relic, because it fails to conform. In De Feo’s view, the fetishistic policing of women’s appearance by legislating French “values” is a step in “the symbolic lynching of an entire category of the French population.”

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The resulting civic polarization, moreover, might ultimately have truly regressive impacts on how Muslim women develop their own cross-cultural ideas of women’s rights:

Muslims are insulted, discriminated, beaten, especially Muslim women, they are a second-class people. So there is what we call in sociology the reversal of the stigma, they become more religious, wear islamic clothes, men grow beards, etc. And the cycle is without end.

The answer to the perceived patriarchy of one culture is not the liberal paternalism of another. The Muslim fashion wars draw a veil over the writhing anxiety of a whole generation of disaffected youth.

Michelle Chen Twitter Michelle Chen is a contributing writer for The Nation.

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Read Trudeau's Response To France's Burkini Ban

With burkini bans spreading in France, there's finally a rational voice to consider — albeit one coming from the other side of the Atlantic. Nice became the latest city along the Mediterranean in France to ban the burkini, a full-body women's bathing suit. The trend follows a number of terrorist attacks in the country, one of the most deadly occurred along the Nice waterfront last month, leaving 86 dead. But burkinis — or Muslims, for that matter — should not be held responsible for this. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's response to the burkini laws explains exactly why banning swimwear doesn't mesh with his country's values.

Trudeau gave the comment when asked about the matter following a meeting to plan his government's legislative agenda. Evidently, some politicians in French-speaking Quebec have already called to introduce a burkini ban there, following the some 15 French cities that already have them in place. Trudeau explained plain as day why such a law has no place in Canada:

He went on to point out that "the respect of individual rights and choices" should be central to political discourse around such matters. He sarcastically hit the nail on the head painting the situation in France: "Tolerating someone means accepting their right to exist on the condition that they don't disturb us too, too much." His point is that a government that undermines individual rights is far from tolerant.

And he's right. The French are trying to keep the France of old, from before its population became more diverse — ethnically and religiously. Not to mention the fact that vacationers from around the world fly to its world-famous beaches. Amanda Taub interviewed Professor Terrence Peterson for The New York Times. Peterson, a professor at Florida International University and an expert on France's relationship with its Muslims immigrants, told The Times that the ban is a sign that the French can't handle their changing country.

"These sorts of statements are a way to police what is French and what is not French," he told the paper. Taub broke down his argument, explaining that during the colonial era, when France controlled the now-independent Muslim nations of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, the veil was seen as a sign of backwardness. French women's more open clothing was a sign of superiority.

That seems to be the current argument, too. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls made the argument that the burkini won't work with French values: "It is not compatible with the values of France and the Republic. Faced with these provocations, the Republic must defend itself. Today, Muslims in France are taken hostage by these groups, these associations, these individuals who advocate for wearing the Burqini and would have you believe that the Republic and Islam are incompatible."

But really the only thing making Islam and France incompatible is this sort of discriminatory legislation. "Women's rights imply the right for a woman to cover up," Rim-Sarah Alouane, a professor of religious freedom at the University of Toulouse, told the Associated Press. She said that the burkini allows religious women to reconcile their faith with beach culture. "What is more French than sitting on a beach in the sand? We are telling Muslims that no matter what you do . we don't want you here," she said.

That should be the last message given to any minority population from the government. It's good to see that Trudeau understands this. We should fully embrace the cultural heritage of all immigrants, not legislate it away in hopes of assimilation. The burkini hasn't become an issue yet in the United States — any sort of ban would certainly be considered unconstitutional under the First Amendment — so we probably won't hear President Obama's thoughts on the matter any time soon. But it's good to know there's a prominent voice against it, given the general acceptance of the bans in France.

Why the Corsica court backed the ban

A local mayor imposed the burkini ban at Sisco in mid-August after two villagers and three men of Moroccan origin were wounded in a brawl. What started the violence is unclear, but a local prosecutor said afterwards that the three North African men, from a nearby town, had wanted the beach for themselves.

France's Human Rights League (LDH) argued that the Corsica ban should now be lifted in response to the top court's ruling.

However, the judge in Bastia ruled on Tuesday that "strong emotions" persisted on the Mediterranean island and that the ban should remain.

Any measures imposed by the local mayor had to be proportionate and purely to maintain public order and any restrictions on liberty had to be justified by proven risks, the judge said. However, the court found that the presence of a woman wearing the type of swimming costume covered by the ban "could cause risks to public order which it is the mayor's duty to prevent".

LDH said after the ruling that the idea that just wearing this type of swimming costume could threaten public order was "unacceptable". The rights group says it will appeal to the top court to overturn it.

The Mayor of Sisco, Ange-Pierre Vivoni, who defended the ban in court in person said the verdict was "a relief for me and local people".

Mr Vivoni added that he had acted because he "risked having deaths on my hands".

Tension has grown in recent months between local communities and Muslims of North African origin in the south of France, following the massacre of 86 people by a lorry driver on the seafront at Nice on 14 July, an attack claimed by so-called Islamic State.

And in Corsica tensions appear to be even higher. Five women wearing the Islamic headscarf were prevented from entering a nursery school in Corsica by other parents, according to local reports.

French mayors refuse to lift burkini ban despite court ruling

Government faces dilemma over whether to enforce ruling that banning burkinis violates ‘fundamental freedoms’

A woman wears a burkini on the beach in Marseille, France. Photograph: Reuters

A woman wears a burkini on the beach in Marseille, France. Photograph: Reuters

Last modified on Tue 28 Nov 2017 15.43 GMT

A majority of mayors who have banned burkinis in about 30 French coastal resorts are refusing to lift the restrictions despite the country’s highest administrative court ruling that the bans are illegal, leaving the state facing a dilemma about how to react.

More than 20 mayors have defiantly kept in place decrees under which municipal police can stop and fine any women in full-body swimsuits at the beach despite the ruling from the state council that the burkini bans are a “serious and manifestly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms”.

In a test case expected to set legal precedent, the court suspended the burkini ban in one French Riviera town, Villeneuve-Loubet, which was obliged to immediately scrap its decree. But the ruling was dismissed by many other mayors.

The interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, who has called for calm and warned against stigmatising Muslims in France, is expected to make an announcement on the issue on Monday. The Green housing minister, Emmanuelle Cosse, said mayors who refused to take the court ruling into account were playing with fire.

Most of the bans are still in place along the French Riviera, including in Nice and a swath of resorts along the Côte d’Azur. The mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, from Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party, was the first mayor to ban burkinis this summer and said he would not budge. He said the ruling “does not in any way change my conviction that ostentatious dress, whatever the religion, is a problem in the current context”. He said burkinis were “Islamist” and a sign of the “salafisation of our society”.

Only two mayors lifted their bans in the wake of the Villeneuve-Loubet ruling: the Socialist mayor of Oye-Plages near Calais and the centrist mayor of Eze in the Alpes-Maritimes. Mayors from the rightwing Les Républicains party and from the far-right Front National are keeping their bans in place, insisting that the Villeneuve-Loubet case does not apply to them.

The burkini bans – which are now seen as illegal – pose a major problem to the French state, which is responsible for making sure the rule of law is respected. In theory, the state could now instruct local prefects to take action to force mayors to withdraw the bans. Human rights groups have also said they will pursue the towns through courts.

The Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, who had caused divisions in his party by supporting the mayors’ bans, insisted that the political debate on burkinis must continue. In a written statement on Facebook, he said the burkini was “the affirmation of political Islam in the public space”.

Manuel Valls provoked controversy with his remarks. Photograph: Thierry Orban/Getty Images

The issue of the burkini and Islam in France has been pushed to the top of the political agenda in the run-up to next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections by Sarkozy, who is running a hardline campaign on French national identity in a bid to win his party’s nomination to run again for president. Sarkozy reiterated that he wants a nationwide law to ban burkinis and also wants to ban Muslim headscarves from universities and private companies.

Alain Juppé, the mayor of Bordeaux, who remains favourite to be chosen as the right’s candidate, launched his campaign against Sarkozy this weekend, striking a conciliatory tone. He is against a nationwide law against burkinis, saying it would be illegal and anti-constitutional, and that it was pointless to push for a new law “amid media agitation”. He told Europe 1 radio that politicians should stop using inflammatory rhetoric to “throw oil on the fire”.

Holding a rally west of Paris on Saturday, Juppé nonetheless proposed creating a special accord between the state and Muslim leaders to lay out clear rules for respecting French secularism.

“It is legitimate to ask them to have a knowledge of the principles of the organisation of the republican state, especially French-style secularism,” he said.

The short-term burkini bans, which began to be issued by mayors at the end of July, have sparked a heated political row about the French principle of laïcité – secularism built on the strict separation of church and state – amid accusations by rights groups that politicians are twisting and distorting the principle for political gain, and using it to deliberately target Muslims following a series of terrorist attacks.

Following reports of some women being stopped by police for simply wearing a headscarf and loose clothing while standing on the beach, controversy has grown.

Benoît Hamon, a former Socialist government minister seeking the left’s presidential nomination, said on Sunday that the burkini debate was “targeting Muslims once again” and criticised Valls for supporting bans.

Watch the video: Frances Burkini Ban: Identity politics go to the beach part 2

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