What happens when personal choice and secularism clash
by Melody Knight-Brown
So it’s hot and it’s summer, and you just so happen to be in France. What do you decide to do? Go to the beach of course, except there’s one problem. You are a Muslim female in a country where more than thirty towns have made it illegal for you to wear a burkini. What is a burkini? It is a burka bathing suit specifically designed for and almost exclusively worn by Muslim women for whom it is against their religion and customs to appear in public with as much skin a normal bikini or one-piece bathing suit show. In keeping with the style of a normal burka, the burkini covers everything except a woman’s hands, feet, and face.
So what’s the big deal? Usually, especially in the United States, we hear stories of people getting in trouble not wearing enough clothing not covering up too much. The problem is that this is not the United States; it is France, a country that prides itself on secularism. Many think that the country is using this ban as a cover to target Muslims. In 2004 France passed a law banning the wear of all and any conspicuous religions signs in public school. While the ban doesn’t specifically mention any one faith, this law is largely considered to be targeting the headscarves worn by Muslim girls. In 2011, France banned the public wearing of a burka. Now in 2016 and France is at it again; targeting women of Muslim faith. The burkini ban was established after the attack in Nice on July 14, 2016 in which 86 people were killed and over 400 were injured. ISIS/ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack. The burkini ban was soon adopted by more than thirty towns as a response to growing terrorist concerns.
While this isn’t the first time and surely not the last radical measures and sentiments have followed terrorist attacks (look at the U.S.’s military budget before and after 9/11) this time there is a lot of international criticism of the ban as Islamophobic. There is also worry that the ban, which includes a €38 ($42) fine, will only propagate ISIS/ISIL’s claim of a war against Islam and serve to further radicalize potential terrorists. However defenders of the ban claim that it is not just a defense of France’s secularism, it is also a defense against regressive, misogynistic practices. This is not a new idea. There is a lot of debate about whether or not the burka is an expression of religious freedom or a symbol of female oppression. On the one hand there are definitely sexist customs in Islam and given the restrictive nature of a burka and the fact guys don’t wear them, burkas are arguably one of them. On the other hand, many women who wear headscarves state that it’s their choice to wear one. It’s an interesting debate, one you should definitely ask your philosophy professor about, but back to France.
On August 26, 2016, France’s highest administrative court ruled against the ban stating that mayors do not have the right to ban burkinis. As the director of Amnesty International Europe said “By overturning a discriminatory ban that is fueled by and is fueling prejudice and intolerance, today's decision has drawn an important line in the sand.” However, this is not the end of the story. Several mayors have reportedly chosen to ignore this ruling and continue enforcing the ban. France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls has also said that he supports the burkini ban, as does the Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French President, who purportedly is planning to run again for president. The entire situation is still very convoluted and complicated and it has yet to come to a final conclusion and given France’s precedent of banning headscarves and burkas it seems likely that the courts ruling will not stick.