France bans burkini swimsuits for religious reasons

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France’s highest administrative court ruled this week against allowing body-covering “burkini” swimsuits in public swimming pools for religious reasons, arguing that it violates the government’s principle of neutrality towards religion.

Although only worn by a small number of people in France, the head-to-ankle burkini sparks intense political debate in the country.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin hailed the Council of State’s decision as a “victory for secularism”. Some Muslim women have decried it as unfairly targeting their faith and their body, and based on outdated misconceptions about Islam.

A woman wearing a burkini walks in the sea on the Marseille coast in a file photo.

The prefect, or senior government official in the Grenoble region, blocked the burkini decision, arguing that it went against France’s secular principles.

The Council of State confirmed Tuesday the decision of the prefect, estimating in a press release that the vote of Grenoble was made “to satisfy a religious claim” and “undermines the neutrality of public services”.

The move was the first under a controversial law, championed by President Emmanuel Macron, aimed at protecting “republican values” from what his government calls the threat of religious extremism.

Hamdia Ahmed, center, wore a burkini on stage during the Miss Maine USA pageant swimsuit contest in 2017.
Hamdia Ahmed, center, wore a burkini on stage during the Miss Maine USA pageant swimsuit contest in 2017.

Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

A few other cities and towns allow burkinis in public pools. The city of Rennes is one of them, but its decision was intended to relax the rules of the swimsuit and not to be based on religious reasons.

Six years ago, the Council of State overturned a local burkini ban, amid shock and anger after some Muslim women were ordered to remove clothing concealing the body on beaches on the Coast of Azure.

For Fatima Bent of the Muslim feminist group Lallab, Tuesday’s decision is “a clear setback” that will further isolate women who cover their heads and bodies in public.

While some Muslim women are forced by male relatives to cover up, she said, “Muslim women are not homogeneous. (the French authorities) look at Muslim women through a single prism. She blamed a “fixation with Muslim women’s bodies by politicians who want to control them” of the colonial era.

Grenoble’s decision on topless swimming has not been threatened in court.

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