Burkini protest a lesson in liberation for the French

Paris Burkini protest is a lesson in liberation for the French
5 min read
05 Sep, 2019
Comment: The French republic has become obsessed with excluding Muslim women from the public sphere, writes Malia Bouattia.
On Sunday, activists in France protested against Islamophobic regulations that ban the Burkini [Facebook]
This week Muslim women alongside other activists, joined a protest in a swimming pool in Paris' 11th district, against the restrictions placed on women who choose to dress modestly while swimming in public spaces in France.

This follows a similar action organised by civil rights group Alliance Citoyenne in June, in Grenoble, where activists were challenging the municipal ban placed on burkinis.

In both cases, groups of women, Muslim or not, wearing Burkinis, bikinis, and one-piece swimsuits entered the pool and refused to leave, despite the arrival of the police. In Paris, the women sang, "For the women and their honour/ And for a better world/ Even when racists don't want us to/We will swim". 

These events follow more than a year of growing national debate over the right of Muslim women to use swimming pools while wearing Burkinis.

The furore started after a 
ban was introduced in the south of France two years ago. And although mass outrage and resistance by Muslim women led to the ban being found unconstitutional and ultimately rescinded, local pools now have the right to impose their own regulations.

This decentralised policy has allowed establishments to hide the racialised nature of the issue behind one of local hygiene or clothing preference - much like whether pools allow longer shorts for men - and has made legal challenges much less effective.

This treatment follows a long series of assaults on Muslim women's right to participate in French public life.

These laws and regulations are in fact a classic colonial strategy to control racialised communities through the repression of their women

From the banning of the hijab in schools and public institutions, to the full ban on the burqa or even the sending home of Muslim university students for wearing "too long" skirts, the French republic has become obsessed with excluding Muslim women from the public sphere.

All done in the name of women's liberation, saving Muslim women from supposedly oppressive Muslim men, these laws and regulations are in fact a classic colonial strategy to control racialised communities through the repression of their women.

The campaigners made those links directly. Their statement reads: 

"Cover your breast that I may not see", "Aren't you pretty? Unveil".

"From Molière to French Algeria, we inherit a sad reality revealing the huge stake that is the control of bodies: a piece of flesh too visible, a piece of tissue too present, 'different' bodies, large bodies, trans bodies, marked bodies, disabled bodies, hairy bodies, etc."

It continues:

"Muslim women wearing the veil can no longer work, study, accompany their children on school trips or at the swimming pool. Under the cover of secularism, hygiene or security (all pretexts are good), regulations worthy of apartheid regimes are implemented today in France.

One Muslim woman who had taken part in the campaign in Paris, was surprised that some of the French press had actually covered the protest as a feminist action, related to women's liberation. Never before have their demands been termed in such a way.

When it comes to racialised, migrant and Muslim women, anything that disrupts the very whitewashed, aggressive secular agenda enforced and violently defended by the French state and its elite, is usually portrayed as an Islamist agenda.

Perhaps the tide might finally be turning?

But press coverage doesn't necessarily reflect policy change. The ill-named Minister for Equality, Marlène Schiappa in her interview with BMFTV, started by telling viewers that she wouldn't want anyone to feel restricted to swim, but then went on to reduce the protests and opposition expressed since the May 2018 burkini ban, to a minority issue, expressed by a minority of women.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the fascist National Front, also
commented warning of the rise of what she terms "permanent communitarian demands" and called on the republic to "reaffirm its authority everywhere". 

This is the same age-old story with France. Minorities are just that and therefore their views are too niche and small in number to ever be taken into consideration, let alone impact national policy.

In fact, the French state refuses to collect any data on ethnic or racial background, claiming it would constitute discrimination. Instead, what emerges is a skewed narrative, suggesting that no evidence of racial discrimination means there is no need for any official action.

The protests in swimming pools led by Muslim women, are then, highly significant. They emerge from a decade and a half of aggressive state-led assaults on female Muslim bodies, and puncture the supposed colour-blind approach of the republic's much vaunted values: Liberty, equality, and fraternity.

It also brings to the fore the continuity between struggles linking the resistance of Algerian women to forced unveiling, the history of western women's struggle to be allowed to wear whatever they desire, and contemporary resistance to state policies geared to control and exclude Muslim women from the public sphere.

They emerge from a decade and a half of aggressive state-led assaults on female Muslim bodies

In the words of the protestors: 

"Our bodies belong to us, we cover them or uncover them for reasons that concern us alone. We denounce these regulations that hinder our freedoms and our autonomy. There is nothing feminist about dictating to women what they can wear.

Do not liberate us, we'll take care of it.

To each woman, her body. To each woman, her swimsuit.

To all, accessibility and respect for our choices."

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.