France has the burkini blues

In 2004, an Australian woman of Lebanese descent, Ms Aheda Zanetti, discovered a market niche. Troubled by the sight of her young niece trying to play netball in an unwieldy combination of hijab and team uniform, she designed something suitable for Muslim sensibilities that combined modesty and practicality. Soon after, she did the same thing for Muslim women who wanted to swim at Sydney beaches - but not in bikinis.

She founded a firm, Ahiida, to produce the "hijood" - a synthesis of hijab and hood - and the "burkini" - an amalgam of burqa and bikini. In 2006, she trademarked the names "burkini" and "burqini" in Australia and elsewhere. The swimwear - two-piece, full-body, head-covering garments - took off. For many Muslim women, the burkini solved a beach dilemma.

Fast-forward a dozen years through a period of growing tension between Islam and the West to Cannes on the French Côte d'Azur, where the mayor this month banned use of burkinis. Cannes is just 24km from Nice, the site of a terrorist attack last month in which a man loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria drove a truck into a festive crowd, killing 85 people.

The ordinance of Cannes mayor David Lisnard said: "Beach attire that ostentatiously displays a religious affiliation, while France and places of worship are the target of terrorist acts, is likely to create risks to public order." His position - adopted by officials in a few other resort towns - has now been backed by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. He told the newspaper La Provence this week: "The burkini is not a new range of swimwear, a fashion. It is the expression of a political project, a counter-society, based notably on the enslavement of women... If we want to construct an Islam of France compatible with our values, our liberties and male-female equality, then Islam must, as other religions have done, accept discretion in the manifestation of its religious convictions."

A number of factors has turned France into the epicentre of the clash between extremist Islam and Western societies. They include the presence of Western Europe's largest Muslim community, French participation in conflicts from the Middle East to Mali, the tensions deriving from France's troubled colonial past (notably in Algeria), and, perhaps most of all, the Republic's firm doctrine of laicite, or secularism, designed to subsume all ethnic, racial, religious and other differences into French citizenship.

Mr Valls said that secularism was not the negation of religion but the protection of everyone's right to believe - or not believe. In practice, however, France's roughly five million Muslims have felt targeted because laicite has mainly translated of late into laws banning headscarves in state schools and face-covering veils in public. The Collective Against Islamophobia in France has said it will file a complaint against the ordinance.

A couple of points must be made here. It is unacceptable that some Muslim communities in Europe enjoy the freedoms of the democracies they live in without accepting the responsibility of upholding the basic values of those societies. After terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam from Britain to Belgium to Germany to France, it cannot be that imams in European mosques preach hatred against the West or portray the liberty and equality of women as debauchery and prostitution.

Leaders of European Muslim communities need to stand up day after day and declare, loud and clear, that with the fruits of freedom come the obligations of tolerant citizenship. Paris was not built on backwardness or barbarism or misogyny. Its luminous appeal to all humanity stems from the Enlightenment. The French state, in turn, like other states, must recommit itself to combating prejudice against Muslims. That said, it is also unacceptable to ban Ms Zanetti's burkini. A burkini is not in itself "a political project", "a counter-society" or a symbol of women's enslavement, as Mr Valls argued. No, it is a choice of dress reflecting a religious belief protected under the French Constitution. If anything, it is the counter-bikini.

Ms Zanetti told Le Monde she has a question: "Do French mayors and politicians want to ban the burkini, or just Muslims?" From distant Australia that's a sharp, easy jibe. The French reality is far more difficult, requiring outreach, restraint and good sense from all sides.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2016, with the headline 'France has the burkini blues'. Print Edition | Subscribe