Last week, the French city of Nice followed fifteen other towns and cities in announcing a ban on burkinis: swimsuits Muslim women sometimes wear that cover their bodies and heads to the same extent as a burqa.
French authorities have justified the ban by saying that burkinis and burqas pose a threat to the nation's secular culture, particularly in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice. There are also those who say that restricting burkinis and burqas offers Muslim women liberation from "oppressive" religious requirements. The Guardian reported that Nice's deputy mayor, Christian Estrosi, justified the ban in a letter by saying, “hiding the face or wearing a full-body costume to go to the beach is not in keeping with our ideal of social relations”.
But what the bans amount to is the opposite of liberating: they're a legally sanctioned oppression of Muslim women's freedom to express their religious beliefs. The absurdity of these laws became harder to ignore after chilling photos surfaced over the weekend of a woman on a beach in Nice being forced by four armed police officers to remove her clothing:
Women who are apprehended by police while wearing a burkini can be fined €38 in some towns. Many Muslims in France have roots in the country reaching back generations.
For instance, one woman fined in Cannes is a 34-year-old mother of two, according to Agence-France Presse. A former air hostess from Toulouse, she said her family goes back at least three generations in France.
“I was sitting on a beach with my family,” she told the agency. “I wasn't even planning to swim, just to dip my feet.”
The woman in the Nice photographs received a ticket, according to Agence-France Presse.
The backlash to the ban has been swift, at least online. People expressed their disgust that in France, a nation that supposedly prides itself on equality, women could have their appearance policed:
One French businessman offered to pay the fines for women who are ticketed for wearing burkinis. And since the laws have been passed, the inventor of the burkini, Aheda Zanetti, says online sales have risen 200%. Following a challenge from an advocacy group, the Human Rights League, France's State Council will review the constitutionality of the bans.
Correction: this post has been updated to reflect that the woman who spoke to A.F.P. was fined in Cannes, not Nice.