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The real dangers of banning the burkini

A full-body wetsuit garment for Muslim women is at the centre of a controversy in France, and the debate is raising difficult questions about feminism, Islamophobia and the country's values.  

At least six towns on the Mediterranean coast have banned the burkini — a swimsuit that covers the torso, limbs and head — and three more are threatening to do the same. 

The mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, who was the first to forbid the beachwear on the basis that it disrespected "good morals and secularism" and posed a threat to public order, called the burkini "the uniform of extremist Islamism." 

Women who break the law face a fine of €38 (£33; $42) and several Muslim women have already been penalised.

France's secular political establishment was united in backing the measure, but failed short of bringing it to a national level. Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in an interview published Wednesday in the La Provence newspaper the burkini reflects a worldview based on "the enslavement of women ... That is not compatible with the values of France."

But in the aftermath of a series of terrorist attacks in France, including one in Nice that killed 85 people, the burkini ban risks deepening the divide between the state and its Muslim population, Europe's largest.  

Many Muslim women regard the ban as sexist, Islamophobic and — most of all — counterproductive for the purpose of assimilating Muslims in the country. 

"It's a blatant violation of women's rights — the right for women to decide what to wear and their freedom of movement," Rim-Sarah Alouane, a religious freedom expert at the University of Toulouse and a Muslim raised in France, told Mashable. 

"Women are not even asked for their opinion: They're dictated to by male officials what they can wear on the beach."

Alouane notes the burkini was invented by an Australian-Lebanese fashion designer. The Muslim designer, Aheda Zanetti, wanted to allow Muslim women to dress modestly and enjoy time by the sea with a comfortable suit. 

"It's not a creation by Iran or Saudi Arabia: It's for women who are trying to enjoy a very Western activity, like sitting on a beach in the sand," Alouane said. 

After Cannes, the towns of Villeneuve-Loubet and Sisco on the island of Corsica — where a brawl erupted between Muslim families and local tourists — Le Touquet and other towns dotted along the English Channel are also planning to ban the swimsuit.  

The Collective against Islamophobia (CCIF) challenged the ban in Cannes but lost and is appealing with the Conseil d'Etat, France's highest administrative court. 

Meanwhile, fines have already been imposed on Muslim women wearing the burkini, according to Le Parisien. Three women, aged from 29 to 57, were fined €38 (£33) while another six women were just verbally warned and "left the beach without causing difficulties," the Cannes mayoral cabinet said. 

Founded in the context of France's state of emergency, which was extended in July for a further six months in the wake of Nice attacks, the ban was introduced for security purposes and to defend the public morale, according to authorities.

But many Muslim women and organisations see blatant hypocrisy and double standards behind the measure. 

Suggestions that the ban is linked to extremism "is not only perverse, it does not have any evidence behind it and it's simply knee-jerk populism meant to play on the fears of some," Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Tell Mama UK, a national project which records anti-Muslim incidents in the UK, told Mashable.

"These women are not a security threat, they're just average French Muslim women," Akeela Ahmed, a London-based equalities campaigner, said. "They're penalising French Muslim women for the actions of terrorists. They either go to the beach and not swim or remain isolated in their communities at home."

Others note Muslims are often targeted in France using the excuse of secularism of the state — the separation of church and state — or what is known as the French law, Laïcité. 

To understand the country's tormented relationship with religion after the French Revolution, one must understand Laïcité, the law introduced in 1905 which prohibits religious expression in the public sphere.

Introduced to crush the powers of the Catholic Church, the law was, in the following decades, harshly applied to French Muslims during the colonisation of Algeria and its controversial aftermath. 

"French Muslims were not seen as French citizens but rather as as a group which cannot integrate and assimilate," said Alouane. A full assimilation and an allegiance to Laïcité   were seen as essential conditions to qualify for French citizenship, she said. 

"From freedom of religion, France has slowly fallen into freedom from religion," Alouane added.

After the decolonisation and the massive influx of Muslim immigrants, Islam was firmly established in France. But Muslims were still forced to hide public expression of their faith "because of an underlining prejudice that 'you're not totally French if you're a Muslim,'" Alouane said. 

Then in 2010, the French parliament approved a law making it illegal for anyone to cover their face in public. While the ban didn't specifically mention the Muslim full-face veil, it was widely interpreted as an anti-burqa measure, introduced on the basis of public safety. 

"Secularism should protect and guarantee religious freedom. Instead they're manipulating Laïcité for a political agenda, they want to make Muslim women disappear from the public space," Alouane said. "It goes against everything France was supposed to stand for: freedom, equality and fraternity."

Critics also warn the bans could divide communities, foment hatred in an already tense country and neutralise attempts by French Muslim activists on the ground to tackle radicalisation and foster cohesion. 

"The real impact is more division and possibly more Muslims in France who will have grievances against the State and who will use those grievances to foment more hatred," Mughal said. 

Controversially, the burkini ban received cross-party and transnational support by feminists and women politicians. Laurence Rossignol, France's women's affairs minister and self-professed feminist, said the burkini expresses "a profoundly archaic vision about the place of women in society and the relationship between men and women."

"It cannot be considered only as a question of fashion or individual liberty," Rossignol added. 

In neighbouring Belgium, Nadia Sminate of the right-leaning Flemish N-VA party, is also calling for burkinis to be banned in public beaches. "I do not think women want to walk around on the beach with such a monstrosity in the name of their faith," she told Flemish daily De Standaard.

This division within the feminist movement worries activists like Akeela Ahmed, who considers herself a feminist and founded "She Speaks We Hear," an online platform bringing together women's voices.

"Feminists need to get on board with the fact that Muslim women and what they decide to wear is a feminist issue. They should have the freedom to wear what they choose and feminists should call for equality for Muslim women," she said. 

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