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France’s burkini bans lead to cries of hypocrisy and sexism

Police fine a woman for wearing a burkini on the Promenade des Anglais beach in Nice, France, on Aug. 23. (Fameflynet Pictures)
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Fifteen communities on the French Riviera have banned burkinis, a kind of swimwear worn by women who want to keep their body covered while going for a dip in the sea.

Judges have ruled that the burkini bans are "necessary, appropriate and proportionate," as the outfit may be viewed as a "provocation exacerbating tensions" at a time when France has suffered a spate of attacks carried out by Islamist extremists.

On Tuesday, images emerged of a woman on a beach in Nice as she is confronted by four armed police officers. In the pictures, she is wearing a clothing item that covers her head, but is not wearing a burkini. Nevertheless, while the officers stand around her, she removes the piece of clothing, and the officers write her a ticket.

In the nearby town of Cannes, Agence France-Presse saw the ticket of another woman who was fined for wearing a burkini on Tuesday. She was identified by her first name, Siam, and is 34 years old. Her ticket gave the reason for the fine as the failure to wear "an outfit respecting good morals and secularism."

Witnesses described a scene of humiliation as nearby beachgoers shouted their support for the police officers, and told the woman "to go home," while her children sobbed, the AFP reported.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told the newspaper La Provence in an interview last week that the burkini reflects a worldview based on "the enslavement of women," and that sees women as "impure and that they should therefore be totally covered."

"That is not compatible with the values of France," Valls said.

Siam and her family have reportedly been French citizens for at least three generations. Siam has worked as a flight attendant in France. Siam told the Daily Mail that the clothing makes her feel comfortable and protected her from the sun.

The surprising Australian origin story of the ‘burkini’

Good morals and secularism are what France has always said it stands for. The burkini bans, and the pictures of their enforcement in Nice, have led some to question whether good morals and secularism in France are now being used as excuses to discriminate against Muslims.

For her part, Siam told the Daily Mail: "Today we are not allowed on the beach. Tomorrow, the street? Tomorrow, we'll be forbidden from practicing our religion at all?"

Others likened the burkini ban to measures taken by totalitarian or theocratic regimes that are antithetical to France's tradition of "liberty and fraternity." There was a palpable sense on social media that while some in the West saw the burkini bans as a rejection of such regimes as Saudi Arabia's that enforce morality codes, others saw it as the other side of the same coin.

The wording of the burkini bans themselves is explicitly aimed at Muslim women, though they are not the only ones who might choose to wear it (the founder of the burkini says that 40 percent of her customers are not Muslim). Many noted that while France is an adamantly secular country, other religious groups that choose to cover themselves are not similarly targeted.

Some pointed out that most majority Muslim countries actually do not impose obligatory veiling for women, and women can wear bikinis on beaches there without fear of officers approaching and fining them.

On Wednesday, the president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) will meet France's Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve to discuss how the burkini bans figure into the larger debate over Muslim integration.

Anouar Kbibech, president of the CFCM, said in a statement that the council "is concerned over the direction the public debate is taking," and also alluded to the stigmatization Muslims in France feel from being equated with terrorists.

As European countries try to accommodate millions of Muslim refugees, citizens and leaders alike have portrayed Muslims as culturally incompatible with Western societies. Others worry that intolerance toward Muslims plays into the hands of extremists who find it easier to recruit Muslims who have been disaffected or radicalized by marginalization in Europe.

The Australian creator of the burkini sees an increase in sales and popularity of the full body swimsuit since the temporary ban on certain beaches in France. (Video: Reuters)

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