Designed by the Australian fashion designer Aheda Zanetti, the burkini (or burqini) is a modesty swimsuit which covers the entire body while also remaining light. It was originally created keeping the traditional Islamic culture in mind; however, its acceptability is still widely debated. Especially in 2016, when a number of French municipalities banned the burkini, it sparked off intense global debate on the controversial theme of Islamophobia.
There are certain laws in France which ban the use of street-wear in public pools and baths. The country’s stance on the involvement of religion in the public sphere further added fuel to the fire. Laws in the nation-state have always laid emphasis on the importance of creating a “religiously neutral” space, where everyone must appear similar and be treated as equals. In this it differs from other nation-states which believe in the freedom of religious expression.
One of those latter states is the US, house to Rosa Parks – “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement”, and also the inspiration for a group of women in the French city of Grenoble who recently defied the very same ban by entering the local Jean Bron swimming pool in these modesty suits.
Two of the women involved in the protest spoke about the necessity for equal civil rights, in an interview with the BBC. They wish to accompany their children to the pool and have fun like all the other citizens in the scorching French heat.
“We must fight against discriminatory policies and prejudice in France, as we are actually deprived of our civil rights of access to public services and city-owned infrastructures.”
The popularly coined “Operation Burkini” was launched by the Citizen Alliance of Grenoble in May to safeguard these very same rights that belong to the muslim women. A year before this, a petition on facebook with 600 signatures kick-started this campaign led by Muslim women urging the Mayor to reform these rules and regulations.
While the lifeguards at the pool tried to prevent them from entering, they pushed through and enjoyed an hour of leisure and freedom.
Later, it was reported by the news outlet France Bleu that the women were questioned and then fined €35 each for their actions.
While the ban was supported by many politicians and further reinforced with the terror attack on Nice, the then socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls went on to claim that it was an attempt to create a counter-society, a political project based on the enslavement of women.
Many commentators and activists criticised this, and reports of women being stopped by the police and forced to remove their headscarves caused outrage among the members of the French Socialist Party and rights groups. The French government’s paternalistic order on the country’s duty to “save Muslim women from enslavement” prompted criticism based on the hypocrisy and bigotry it represented, especially in the English-speaking countries.
While many Muslim activists view it as a regress, others view the burkini as a facilitator of movement. They feel that the garment gives them access to opportunities, experiences, and public spaces, while also respecting their religious values and customs. Burkinis have actually allowed women to enter spaces that they might have previously avoided out of moral obligations and restrictions.