Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

France Debates Bans on Burkinis

Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

France Debates Bans on Burkinis

Article excerpt

PARIS - Male officials are dictating what women can wear on French beaches -and people across a wide swath of French society say that's a good thing. Decrees issued by several mayors this month ban the body-encompassing burkini swimsuit, which France's secular political class says subjugates women and is incompatible with a country whose motto celebrates equality and freedom.

To many Muslim women, that's pure hypocrisy. They see the burkini bans themselves as sexist, not to mention racist and a reactionary backlash to terrorism fears.

Even though it's only worn by a tiny minority, the burkini - a wetsuit-like garment that covers the torso, limbs and head - has prompted a national discussion about Islam and women's bodies. At least five towns have banned them this summer, and others are threatening to follow suit.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls says the swimsuit reflects a worldview based on "the enslavement of women. In an interview published Wednesday in the La Provence newspaper, he said the belief that women are "impure and that they should therefore be totally covered was part of an "archaic vision.

"That is not compatible with the values of France, Valls said.

Much of the French political class, from the left to the far right, agrees - including the government's proudly feminist women's affairs minister.

"The burkini is ... a particular vision of the place of the woman. It cannot be considered only as a question of fashion or individual liberty, Laurence Rossignol said on Europe-1 radio.

But Rim-Sarah Alouane, a religious freedom expert at the University of Toulouse, says the anti-burkini brigade is relying on outdated ideas about Islam to stigmatize France's No. 2 religion.

"Women's rights imply the right for a woman to cover up, said Alouane, a Muslim who was born and raised in France. The burkini "was created by Western Muslim women who wanted to conciliate their faith and desire to dress modestly with recreational activities.

"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.

Local mayors cite multiple reasons for their burkini bans, including the difficulty of rescuing bathers in copious clothing. But their main justification is security concerns after a season marred by deadly Islamic extremist attacks.

Critics warn the bans could enflame religious and social tensions in a country already on edge. …

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