It came to light last week that the mayor of Cannes, David Lisner, had issued an ordinance in late July barring women from wearing “burkinis,” or full-body swimsuits, on the city’s beaches through the end of August. Burkinis, which cover the wearer save for the hands, feet, and face, are sported by some Muslim women who wish to remain modest while swimming. Transgressors risk a €38 fine ($42).
Lisner claimed that burkinis are a “symbol of Islamic extremism” and are “not respectful of good morals and secularism.” Such a ban and such statements are, on the surface, largely linked to terrorism, particularly the recent attacks in Paris,Nice, and northwest France. These attacks have led France to declare a state of emergency through at least January 2017.
Yet the ban and accompanying declarations are in fact only the latest manifestation of French anxiety about Muslims—an anxiety often played out on women’s bodies, especially in regard to their clothing.
During France’s colonization of Algeria (1830-1962), such unease was already evident in the way French colonists approached the veiling of Algerian women. General Thomas-Robert Bugeaud, who served as governor-general of Algeria in the 1840s, famously said, “The Arabs elude us because they conceal their women from our gaze.”
French colonial policy in Algeria centered around a “civilizing mission” that aimed to assimilate colonial subjects into “French” men and women who would share the same language, history, and ideology as their colonizers. Getting Algerian women to remove their veils was a particular goal of this mission.
For the approximately 5 million Muslims living in France in the 21st century, this civilizing mission has continued and is joined by a view of laïcité (secularism) unlike the American version. As the scholar Joan Scott writes in her book, The Politics of the Veil:
Laïcité means the separation of church and state through the state’s protection of individuals from the claims of religion. (In the United States, in contrast, secularism connotes the protection of religions from interference by the state.)
Thus in France the state is shielded from religion, while in the United States religion is shielded from the state. Muslims calling for religious rights, such as the right to wear a headscarf, therefore face an uphill battle in French courts.
Indeed, courts in France have traditionally served assimilation and laïcité when cases arise on the attire of Muslim girls and women. In 2004, courts passed legislation that banned the headscarf in public schools. A 2011 law banned the niqab (the full-face veil) in public. These laws were passed despite the fact that a small percentage of French Muslim girls and women wear a headscarf, and a tiny fraction wear a niqab.
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French Muslims often feel attacked when these laws are passed. The French sociologist Olivier Roy told Deutsche Welle that the niqab ban, for instance, gives “people of Muslim origin, believers and nonbelievers...[a feeling of]...pressure and attack against Islam as a religion.”
The consequences of this feeling of alienation from French society are counterproductive to France’s quest for security. As one Muslim woman interviewed by the BBC about the burkini ban noted, “[The ban] just hands ammunition to those who want to recruit to their twisted ideology.”
Three women supported by the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) challenged the burkini ordinance, but a court in Nice upheld the ban. CCIF’s lawyer said he would appeal the case. In the meantime, another town on the French Riviera, Villeneuve-Loubet, and a town in Corsica, Sisco, announced similar bans.
Still, the burkini seems unstoppable, at least economically, in Muslim-majority as well as Western countries. Burkinis and similarly modest clothing have been taking off in recent years, with stores such as Marks and Spencer and haute couture labels such as DKNY and Dolce & Gabbana offering Muslim-friendly fashion. Muslim sartorial spending is expected to surge 82 percent by 2019 (compared to 2013), reaching $484 billion.
It also turns out that not only Muslim women want to wear these designs—for modesty, for protection from the sun, or for other reasons. According to Aheda Zanetti, the inventor of the burkini, 35 to 45 percent of her swimsuit orders go to non-Muslims. “Now we have sales all over the world,” she toldNewsweek. “And whenever they ban it…it goes very well for me. People just buy more of them.”