Long history of uncovering Muslim women
The French burkini ban is part of a long tradition of stopping Muslim women from wearing religious attire. For example, during the colonial period in Algeria, Arab women were stripped of their veils at public ceremonies, says Edda Manga, racism researcher and historian of ideas.
In August, around 30 French beach communities banned the wearing of burkinis, a swimsuit primarily worn by Muslim women that covers arms, hair and legs. On Friday 26 August, France’s highest administrative court temporarily suspended the ban in the town of Villeneuve-Loudet. Despite the Council of State’s ruling, the outfit remains prohibited in several French towns.
Edda Manga is an historian of ideas and a racism researcher at the Multicultural Centre in Botkyrka outside Stockholm, Sweden. She says that the purpose of the French bans is to reinforce the French identity by clearly defining the boundaries of the national ‘we’.
‘And they are doing this by defining the limits for “them” and for what “they” are allowed to do,’ she says.
This is not the first time France has tried to regulate Muslim women’s dress code. In 2004, the country adopted a law banning religious signs and symbols in public schools. It was clear to most people that the new rule targeted Muslim hijabs in particular. And in 2011, France banned the wearing of face-covering veils in public places.
‘And it didn’t start there either. It is well known that French colonists in Algeria arranged public ceremonies at which Arab women had their veils removed. France has a long tradition of uncovering Muslim women,’ she says.
The French self-image is also characterised by a long history of laïcité, a national form of secularism based on the separation of state and religion (France adopted a law on the separation of church and state in 1905). Edda Manga says that the French secularism dates back to the French Revolution. At that time, it became important to revolt against both the monarchy and the Catholic Church, which were closely connected. The country’s secularism is also strongly influenced by the idea that the state should protect citizens from religious expressions.
‘There is another type of secularism exemplified by USA. There the state must guarantee its citizens freedom to practise whatever religions they want. The law is designed to protect this freedom from state intervention and is rooted in the fact that many European settlers who developed the nation had fled religious persecution in their home countries. The French secularism is influenced by the country’s colonial past. It has been used as an identity marker against the colonised others. It has represented the modern, civilised and reasonable in contrast to the colonised people’s supposed conventionalism and religious irrationalism.’
The reasons for banning burkinis at this exact point in time have been linked to the recent Islamist terror attacks in France, such as in July when a person drove a lorry into a crowd and killed at least 84 people.
But this ban is only a symbolic act. Few people believe that women in burkinis form a real security threat. Instead it seems like these women are targeted because they are not expected to be able to fight back. It seems risk free in the short term, but in the longer term the ban may very well lead to an increased risk of terrorism. It is an open attack against French Muslims, who are being discriminated in a very frustrating way. That leads to anger and some may also resort to violence.
Edda Manga is afraid the French bans will spread to other European countries, including Sweden.
‘Sweden has adopted bad French ideas in the past. A few years ago, France made vulnerable Roma EU citizens leave the country. Sweden protested at first, but today there seems to be a movement in that same direction. So far, Sweden has rejected bans on for example veils. But the propositions keep coming and maybe one day they may gain enough support also here.’
However, she wants to point out that despite the widespread Islamophobia in Sweden and France, there are also antiracist movements and the burkini bans have met strong opposition.
‘The widely published picture of a woman who is forced to remove her burkini in front of a group of male police officers is strikingly similar to pictures from a different era. It is important to make people realise this and it is also important to point out that there are people and organisations out there that are defending the rights of Muslim women.’
She is glad the French Council of State has temporarily halted the ban in Villneuve-Loudet while the court is looking closer at the issue.
‘However, the fact that the communities in southern France are refusing to obey the decision adds legitimacy to this type of measure and ideology. The same thing can be said about French opposition leader Nicolas Sarkozy wanting to impose a national burkini ban and make it a key election issue. But it is still possible to offer resistance and to sway the situation in a more democratic direction. The last word has not been said on this.’