At the Speed Water Park, not far from Marseille, France, there is a private pool party planned for Sept. 10. Yet while such events are generally moments for some carefree summer fun, this particular party has become a surprising battleground in Europe's culture wars — with the local town mayor dubbing the party "provocation" and threatening to ban it.
"I'm taking up a city bylaw that can prohibit this event on the grounds that it is likely to cause public disorder," Michel Amiel, mayor of Pennes-Mirabeau, told Le Parisien newspaper.
The source of the controversy can be seen in a flier for the party, which was shared on Facebook by Smile 13, an organization that is throwing the party. The invite states specifically that the party is exclusively for women and children, with boys up to age 10 permitted but no older males.
"We count on you to respect the AWRA (the body parts that must be covered according to Islamic law) and not come in a two piece (the body must be covered from the chest to the knees)," the message on the poster reads, according to a translation from the Local. "The pool park has exceptionally allowed bathers to wear burqinis and jilbab de bains."
A burqini is women’s garment made of swimsuit material that covers the entire body, except for the face, hands and feet. By covering the majority of a woman’s skin, it allows her to swim without worrying about the requirements in some Islamic cultures to dress modestly while in public. A jilbab de bains is a similar, looser-fitting outfit.
Both outfits have become relatively popular in Europe over recent years, with big-name retailers such as Britain’s Marks & Spencer producing their own swim garments for modesty-conscious women and some non-Muslim Western celebrities wearing the burqini.
But despite their popularity, burqinis have faced bans across Europe in a number of separate cases. Just a few months ago a public pool in German state of Bavaria banned swimmers from wearing burqinis; another town in Austria followed suit in July. Going back further, in 2009 a French woman was banned from a facility outside Paris after she wore the garment in the pool.
In the recent case in Germany, authorities suggested that burqinis were "unhygienic." Amiel's criticism of the party near Marseille instead focused more on the social aspects of the pool party. "I am shocked and angry. I consider this event a provocation, which is not needed in the current context," the mayor told Le Parisien, adding that the pool party should be considered "communautarisme," a French word that denotes the segmentation of a nation.
Other French politicians agreed. Valerie Boyer, mayor of two Marseille districts and a member of the center-right Les Republicains party, published a statement on Twitter that said it was a question "of the woman's dignity, a question of our most fundamental principles." Meanwhile, Stephane Ravier, another mayor in two other Marseille districts who represents the far-right National Front, called the pool party an "Islamist day" that showed how "a certain number of Muslims are deciding among themselves to break away from our Republican model and put themselves outside our society."
The controversy over a "burqini" pool party is just the latest development in the back and forth over immigration and integration in Europe, where swimming pools have become a surprising point of contention. Burqinis and female-only hours at pools — both measures designed to protect notions of female modesty in some Muslim communities — have caused controversy on a continent that often prides itself on egalitarianism and gender equality.
France, an officially secular country with a large Muslim minority, has suffered from a number of recent terrorist attacks. The integration of Muslims into French society is a matter of national debate. The country has some of the strictest laws in Europe regarding the wearing of Islamic veils and other clothing in public: In 2011, the French government banned the niqab, or full-face veil, from being worn in public.
Despite the controversy, so far Smile 13 is keeping quiet. The small organization, which bills itself as a "socio-cultural, sports and aid association," has not posted anything on the Facebook event page since Tuesday, when it shared some pictures of the pool.
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