France's burqini ban institutionalises Islamophobia

France's burqini ban institutionalises Islamophobia
5 min read
23 Aug, 2016
Comment: The recent ban on the burqini follows in a series of legal measures in France that curtail women's freedoms and give cover to Islamophobic behaviour, writes Usaid Siddiqui
Islamophobic crimes spiked after France's 2010 ban on the burqa and niqab in public [Getty]

In every agonising debate dealing with identity and culture, women are often its first casualties.

In the latest uproar over the place of Islam and Muslims in the western world, the Mayor of Cannes recently placed a ban on burqinis, a full body swimsuit worn by some Muslim women for bathing.

According to the ruling passed by Mayor David Lisnard, "access to beaches and for swimming is banned to anyone who does not have (bathing apparel) which respects good customs and secularism". Since announcing the ban, authorities in Cannes have started to fine women wearing the garment.

Beginning in 2004 when religious attire such as headscarves in school classrooms were banned, France has continued to enact laws against the religious rights of its citizens, most notably affecting its Muslim residents, especially women.

While politicians assert that this is to maintain the integrity of France's proud tradition of equality through "laicité" - the French version of secularism - it only adds to the angst Muslims feel in society where they find themselves increasingly ostracised.

Legislating against women's choices

In 2010 the French government successfully legislated to ban the burqa and the niqab in public spaces. According to then French Prime Minister Nickolas Sarkozy, who prompted the ban in 2009, "The problem of the burqa is not a religious problem, it's a problem of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement".

While Sarkozy and his supporters harped on about the backwardness of the garb and the pitfalls of Muslim misogyny, they lacked any proof that the overwhelming number of niqab-wearing women were being coerced into doing so.

In fact, the number of women choosing to wear the veil was so negligible, the move seemed concocted to score a cheap political point rather than a concern for the well-being of Muslim women.

France has continued to enact laws against the religious rights of its citizens, most notably affecting its Muslim residents, especially women

In a study conducted by France's Interior Ministry in 2009, it was reported that only 1,900 women were wearing the face veil, among a population of 5 million Muslims. Agnes De Feo, a French sociologist and prominent filmmaker said last year that the ban had been a "total failure".

According to Feo, the ban only serves reinforce the feeling among some Muslims that their customs are not welcome in France. Based on her decade long research on the topic, Feo told the French paper Local that "Those who have left to go and fight in Syria say that this law is one of things that encouraged them". Furthermore she added that "They saw it as a law against Islam. It had the effect of sending a message that Islam was not welcome in France".

Much of the research conducted on radicalisation in Europe (including France) supports Feo's assertions; that for many French Muslims - who are often living on the fringes of French society, both socially and economically - the perception of living in a society hostile to their religious beliefs causes a sense of disenfranchisement, isolation and lack of self-belonging; key factors that help fuel radicalisation.

The impact on Muslim women

A research report published by the Open Society Justice initiative concluded that of the 32 women they surveyed who wear the full face veil, nearly all said their lives had been negatively impacted by the law; including depression, anxiety, family issues and public backlash.

Some of the women reported that the law had hindered them from carrying out daily activities that badly impacted their relationships with their children, as they went out less and depended on their relatives to carry out tasks they would normally do wearing a veil.

Most worryingly, the ban has resulted in dozens of cases where veil-wearing women have faced verbal abuse and physical assault

Some felt "that part of their personality had been taken away". Fatima, one of the participants who had worn the veil since 2006 until shortly after the ban was imposed, agonised that "Morally I no longer feel free. They're obliging me to be like this [uncovered] although I don't want to" she added.

Most worryingly, the ban has resulted in dozens of cases where veil-wearing women have faced verbal abuse and physical assault in public spaces since it was ratified. Sold to the population wrapped in the language of gender parity and an attempt to uphold French values, such laws have given cover to those harbouring anti-Muslim views, which has at times translated into violence.

A report published last year concluded that approximately 80 percent  of the victims of anti-Muslim incidents in France are Muslim women, especially those who continued to defy the ban on the niqab. In one infamous incident last year, a pregnant Muslim woman in a headscarf was physically assaulted by two men who of which one told her "none of this here", as he yanked at her scarf.

Rising Islamophobia in France

The debate around the veil is just one element of wider questions around Muslim identities in France, as well as in the rest of Europe. School cafeterias, where calls to ban halal food or non-pork alternatives have become yet another battleground in the debate between French secularism and the place of Islam in French public life.

In March 2015, a French court upheld the ban against non-pork alternatives in schools, initiated by Gilles Platret, the mayor of a small town in eastern France.  

The attacks last November and the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January 2015 have only served to worsen the situation for Muslims. In the aftermath of the attacks, anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked, with a 128 incidents recorded within two weeks of the tragic shooting.

Lisnard too, stated that the burqini was an obvious symbol of "religious affiliation" which would be "disruptive" to the public order, in light of the recent terrorist attacks in the country.

Dictating to Muslims what they can and cannot wear will simply exacerbate their sense of marginalisation, and make attempts (if any) at assimilation that much harder.

Usaid Siddiqui is a Canadian freelance writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

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.