Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 July 2019

France's 'Operation Burkini' is about treating all women with dignity and respect

Veiled Muslim women in France say they are channelling the spirit of Rosa Parks' civil disobedience – and I stand with them

The burkini has been banned in numerous French swimming pools and on a number of beaches. Getty
The burkini has been banned in numerous French swimming pools and on a number of beaches. Getty

In the past few weeks, a group of veiled Muslim women in France have been compared to Rosa Parks. With echoes of the American civil disobedience movement of the 1950s, the women from Alliance Citoyenne, a social advocacy group in Grenoble, have been visiting swimming pools in burkinis, which are banned by a number of French cities. This Sunday – and every Sunday until the rules are changed – they’ll be donning their cover-all swimsuits once again. Alliance Citoyenne organiser Adrien Roux says they have been applauded by other pool-goers, but when they got out of the water in one venue, there were police officers waiting to greet them and they were fined.

Despite many changes instigated by Rosa Parks' one-woman protest, there are still numerous instances in which the rules of exclusion continue to apply, creating de facto second-class citizens

When Parks refused to give up her place on a Montgomery bus to a white passenger in December 1955, she said she was “tired” – not physically tired, but tired of giving in and being treated like a second-class citizen. Despite many changes instigated by her one-woman protest, there are still numerous instances in which the rules of exclusion continue to apply, creating de facto second-class citizens. Even if they cannot be compared to the horrors of racial segregation, when we see them, we have a responsibility to call them out because they are equally dehumanising.

The banning of Muslim women wearing the burkini in France is a case in point. Some might argue that the comparison is frivolous. But the Muslim women who have been protesting the ban at public pools and beaches across France say they are upholding the same freedom of conscience. The response has been telling – and terrifying. Grenoble mayor Eric Piolle tweeted: “National solidarity is at stake…the role of the state is to pose clear and just rules for everyone.” Matthieu Chamussy, of the centre-right Republican party, went so far as to call the defiant act the advancement of “political Islam” and the retreat of “the cause of women”.

France vigorously enforces secularism and banned the burqa and niqab in 2011, followed by a ban on the burkini in 2016. In Nice that year, when a veiled Muslim woman relaxing with her family on a French beach was surrounded by four armed policemen and ordered to remove the top covering her swimsuit, the pictures went worldwide. Commentators pointed out how less than a century earlier, beach police had patrolled to check whether women’s swimsuits covered enough of their bodies, with a tailor on hand to stitch more modest attire if necessary. In both instances, women were being dictated to about what they should or shouldn’t wear. In both cases, it was wrong.

Mealy-mouthed arguments have been used to justify the exclusion of veiled Muslim women from swimming in public in France. One is that by wearing burkinis, they are not integrating. Yet the images of the women merrily splashing about with their children in Grenoble, alongside other smiling swimmers, belie this, because going for a family day out to the swimming pool or to the beach in a western secular society is the very definition of integration.

Others have argued that it is a matter of national security. Yet the last time I checked, there were no burkini-wearing criminals on Interpol’s most wanted list.

The nub of the issue is simply that this is about delegitimising veiled Muslim women and preventing them from mingling in society by issuing dictats on how they should dress.

Protesters outside the French embassy in London in response to the burqini ban. Justin Tallis / AFP
Protesters outside the French embassy in London in response to the burqini ban. Justin Tallis / AFP

What is the difference between a Muslim woman who wears leggings, a long tee shirt and a swimming turban, and a woman who covers her arms and legs so she doesn’t burn and swims wearing a cap? Simply put: it is her faith.

None of this is about clothing and everything to do with excluding veiled Muslim women.

In the heatwave sweeping Europe this summer, I have been shopping for my own burkini this week. I will be wearing it with pride at the pool, in solidarity in spirit and body with those Muslim women in Grenoble – because no one should have to put up with being treated like a second-class citizen.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

Updated: June 27, 2019 09:11 PM

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