The "burkini ban" recently implemented in a number of French cities has become a topic of global controversy this week after images spread online of a women being forced by a group of male police officers to remove her clothing at a beach in Nice.
Hijabs were banned from public schools in 2004, along with other "ostentatious" religious articles, including large Christian crosses and the Jewish kippa. In 2007, full-face Islamic veils were banned from public places in France. In recent months, a number of French cities have issued their own bans on the burkini, a type of swimwear that covers most of the body.
In some ways, the French situation is hard to understand for outsiders: The country considers religion a private matter and its concept of laïcité means that the country is officially secular. Even so, the sentiment behind the bans doesn't seem to be limited completely to France: Germany recently announced that it was considering some kind of ban on the full-face veil in public.
To many outsiders, however, there are a number of confounding facts surrounding the burqa and burkini bans. Here are just a few.
1. The burqa was extremely rare in France before it was banned.
In 2009, as France moved to ban the full-face veil, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the burqa a symbol of "debasement" that was "not welcome" in the country. What Sarkozy didn't reveal was how many women actually wore the burqa in France. In fact, the French Interior Ministry's estimates suggested that only a few, if any, French women wore the burqa.
Part of this is simple semantics: The burqa describes a type of veil worn mostly in Afghanistan and South Asia. It is a single piece of cloth that covers the entire body with usually only a thin mesh for the woman to see out of. What you are more likely to see in Europe are niqabs, a veil more popular in Gulf states that usually covers the bottom half of the face and leaves the area around the eyes open.
The Interior Ministry estimated that just 2,000 French women wore the niqab (for reference, France's Muslim population is now estimated at 7.5 million) and some think that even that estimate was faulty and potentially too high.
Germany now seems to be following in France's footsteps. Despite a proposed ban on full-face veils and one prominent politician calling himself a "burqaphobe," German journalists have found little evidence of anyone wearing the burqa in Germany and only a few hundred are thought to wear the niqab.
2. Those who receive fines tend to be repeat offenders.
It doesn't seem like the ban acts as a great deterrent. Women still wear the niqab in France. French data from 2015 showed that 1,546 fines had been imposed under the law — even though police have stopped short of fully implementing the law due to concerns about public order.
More confoundingly, of these women who were charged, many were repeat offenders. One woman was fined 33 times. Agnes De Feo, a researcher and documentary maker who has followed around 150 women who wear the veil for years, explained recently that often these women viewed the act of wearing the veil as one of "rebellion" against the French state.
And while French law imposes a far heavier fine on any man who forces a woman to wear a full-face veil, there are no signs that anyone has ever been prosecuted for this act.
3. A single businessman has paid off a large number of the fines.
French women can face fines of 150 euros ($167) for wearing the full-face veil in public. However, a businessman named Rachid Nekkaz claims to have paid at least 1,165 fines in France so far, as well as a further 268 in Belgium, two in the Netherlands and one in Switzerland. The total cost, Nekkaz says, is around 245,000 euros ($278,000) with attorneys fees.
"Thanks to the fund allocated to the defense of these women's freedom to dress as they please in the street, women are no longer afraid of wearing the niqab," he said.
4. Some say that the number of women who wear the full-face veil has actually increased in France since the bans were implemented.
Some experts say that the law has actually propelled more women to wear the veil rather than discouraged it. De Feo said that many of the women she talks to who wear the niqab in France today were inspired to wear the veil by the law; often they are young converts to Islam. Many of the women who wore the niqab before the ban spend most of their time at home now, De Feo said.
"There are indeed more women who wear it in 2016 than in 2011," Nekkaz said. "The Sarkozy law is a failure."
5. The burkini was invented in Australia and was designed as a means to allow Muslim women to participate in Australian culture.
The burkini did not originate in Afghanistan. In fact, given that it is a two-piece garment that doesn't cover the face, it doesn't have a whole lot to do with the burqa in general.
The burkini's origin can be traced to Australia, where it was created by a woman named Aheda Zanetti in the early 2000s. Zanetti, who had moved to Sydney from Lebanon at the age of 2, had been inspired to make Muslim-friendly sportswear after seeing her niece play netball in a more traditional hijab. She eventually created what we now refer to as the burkini (she actually owns the copyright to both Burkini and Burqini, though they are used as generic terms).
"I wanted to make sure we blended in with the Australian lifestyle," Zanneti recently told WorldViews.
The burkini really got its break in 2007, in the aftermath of anti-Muslim riots on Sydney's beaches. Surf Life Saving Australia, a nonprofit group, began looking for Muslim lifeguards to work on the beaches, and so they contacted Zanetti about her outfit and she made one for them in yellow and red.
The subsequent media attention helped launch both the concept of a burkini and Zanetti's own business worldwide. Zanetti said the only thing she worries about is the name, which is frequently misunderstood. "It's just a name that I invented. It doesn't mean anything," she said of the burkini. "It's really an Islamic two-piece bikini, but that sounds stupid."
6. Non-Muslim women wear burkinis, too.
The burkini isn't just for Muslims. "We've sold to Jews, Hindus, Christians, Mormons, women with various body issues. We've had men asking for them, too," Zanetti explained. In a separate interview with Women's Wear Daily, Zanetti estimated that around 40 percent of her client base was non-Muslim.
Some non-Muslim celebrities have been photographed wearing similar outfits to the beach: In 2011, British chef and television personality Nigella Lawson was spotted wearing one during a holiday to Australia. The outfit was created by a British brand called Modesty Active and Lawson later said that she wore it to protect her skin. Other companies, such as Aqua Modesta, also create similar garments for Orthodox Jewish women.
7. Extremist groups have tried to use France's burqa ban as a recruitment tool.
A number of French citizens have noted that the photographs shot in Nice this week might serve as a recruitment tool for the Islamic State. "Jihadist sympathizers themselves seem surprised that the municipal police of Nice make their propaganda for them," David Thomson, author of "The French Jihadist," said in one interview published Thursday. "For them, this is a godsend."
Last week, Italy's Interior Minister said the country would not be implementing a burkini ban on public beaches, warning that such responses could "become provocations that could potentially attract attacks."
Extremist groups have already used France's ban of full-face veils as justification for attacks. The very first issue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's Inspire magazine included an article titled "The West Should Ban the Niqab Covering Its Real Face." De Feo says that at least one of the French women she knows who started wearing the veil after the 2011 ban eventually headed to Syria to join a jihadist group.
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