It’s unclear precisely why a brawl broke out on a French island beach over the weekend, mobilizing dozens and injuring five, but, according to officials, it involved a dangerous combination of hatchets, harpoons and strong opinions on the garment choice of several sunbathers of North African descent.
Behold the “burkini,” a full body swimsuit worn by Muslim women. It’s difficult to distinguish from the kind of traditional wetsuit commonly worn by scuba divers and surfers. Most are simple and black and seemingly inoffensive, but in France, the burkini — just like the burqa — has become a political and cultural trigger point.
The garment goes against the country’s secular beliefs, government officials have said, and only furthers tension between French citizens who practice Islam and those who do not in a country that has suffered a series of targeted attacks by Islamist extremists in recent years.
France banned clothing that covered the face in public places in 2011, and this summer, as vacation season peaks on the Riviera, that scrutiny has been directed toward the burkini. The mayor of Cannes banned it from the city’s beaches last week, reported the Associated Press, citing security concerns and saying the beachwear doesn’t respect “good morals and secularism.” Soon after, the mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet banned the burkini for sanitary reasons.
“I was informed that there was a couple on one of our beaches where the wife was swimming fully dressed,” Mayor Lionnel Luca told Sky News. “I considered that unacceptable for hygienic reasons and that in general it was unwelcome.”
And on Sunday, after the beachside brawl and an angry 200-person rally, Sisco, on the island of Corsica, became the third French town to outlaw burkinis. The ban begins Tuesday.
Sisco Mayor Ange-Pierre Vivoni told the BBC that Corsica was “sitting on a powder-keg” and that the new ordinance was not racist, but intended to ensure the safety of all beachgoers.
Conflicting accounts are shaping the narrative of the “burkini brawl,” which may have had nothing to do with the burkini at all, reports the Los Angeles Times. According to the newspaper, the local press reported that the fight broke out after several women swimming in burkinis became the subjects of a photo op for a group of teenagers and their families, but a girl who witnessed the altercation said it started when three men argued with a tourist whom they accused of photographing the women.
Rocks and bottles were thrown.
When about 40 people from the nearby village arrived, the violence escalated, reported the BBC, and men were slashed by hatchets and harpoon blades. Three cars were burned, tires were slashed, and as many as five people were taken to the hospital, the L.A. Times reported.
Tensions grew Sunday, when an impromptu rally was held and nearly 200 demonstrators marched on the city’s Lupino district, where many families of North African descent live, according to the BBC. “This is our home!” they shouted.
The public prosecutor has opened an investigation into the weekend’s violence, reported the L.A. Times, and on Monday, the French interior minister condemned the brawl.
Though the French public has shown support for so-called burkini bans — especially after 85 people were killed in Nice by an Islamic State supporter last month and bombings and shootings left 130 dead in Paris last November — opponents have said the bans will only further divide a mourning country.
“Here in France we have a principle of secularism … but this law only talks about Muslim women,” Feiza Ben Mohamed, spokeswoman for the Southern Federation of Muslims, told The Local about the burkini ban in Cannes. “The mayor talks about protecting public order, which means he thinks the presence of a Muslim woman on a beach will cause trouble. He also invokes the fight against terrorism, so he is basically saying a Muslim woman who wears a burkini is a terrorist.”
“Yet again it’s ordinary Muslims who pay for the actions of terrorists even though they had nothing to do with it,” Ben Mohamed added. “This is exactly what Daesh [the Islamic State] wants.”
In a post about the Cannes burkina ban, writer Ikram Ben Aissa argued that these ordinances treat Muslim women as second-class citizens.
“Citizens should be free to wear what they choose!” she writes. “When will Muslims in Europe be respected and treated as equal citizens? When will we stop marginalizing millions of European Muslim citizens, especially women?”
The traditional dress for Muslim women in not-so-traditional settings has been a hot topic of conversation of late, particularly after one more of Egypt’s first Olympic women’s beach volleyball team wore a uniform — a hijab with long sleeves and pants — that starkly contrasted the usual teeny-tiny beach bikini worn by the other Olympic teams.
“We don’t want to get rid of anything,” Fatima Adwan, a spokeswoman for Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy in Abu Dhabi, told The Washington Post last month. “The culture is what it is, and it’s a beautiful culture as it stands. We want to say that you don’t need to go against your culture to participate in sports.”
That openness, however, has not penetrated French soil, and it appears that Muslim women there may be on the losing side of a legal battle with the fashion police.
On Saturday, a court in Nice upheld the Cannes burkini ban, reported the L.A. Times, ruling that after the Nice attack, “forms of beachwear that indicate belief” could “exacerbate tension” and create a possible “threat to public order.”
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