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POLITICS

OPINION: If France is to belong in a multicultural world it must accept its Muslim women

It's another hot summer in France and there's another predictable uproar over the Burkini. If France wants to take its place in a multicultural world then it must make room for all its citizens, writes civil liberties expert Rim-Sarah Alouane.

OPINION: If France is to belong in a multicultural world it must accept its Muslim women
Women visit a booth selling clothing during the 35th annual meeting of the French Muslim community on March 30th, 2018 at Le Bourget, north of Paris. (Photo by JACQUES DEMARTHON / AFP)

France’s compulsive obsession with the behaviour and dress of its Muslim citizens has taken on worrying proportions, and has turned over the years into a form of mass hysteria. The “burkini affair” is one of many examples.

The burkini is a two-piece full body swimsuit with sleeves, long legs and a headgear. This type of swimming-suit made of Lycra® leaves the face, feet and hands uncovered. It was invented in 2003 by Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, who wanted to develop sporting attire for Muslim women that would allow them to take part in sports activities while accommodating their religious beliefs. While the burkini was first designed for Muslim women, it has also been adopted by many non-Muslim women who wish to cover their bodies for various reasons.

The controversy escalated in 2016, when the French Council of State – France’s highest administrative court – overturned a series of local initiatives to ban the use of burkinis on public beaches. These bans were implemented in an atmosphere of increasing anti-Muslim sentiment by local officials who argued that such attire disturbed the public order. The Council saw no such disturbance and argued that it was an infringement on constitutionally protected civil liberties. This, however, did not end the controversy.

READ ALSO: Why is France’s interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

In response, the political establishment from across the political spectrum tried to find legal loopholes to circumvent the ruling, turning their attention to municipal swimming pools where they could modify the rules governing public services.

A recent controversy involved the Green Party Mayor of Grenoble, Eric Piolle, who authorized the wearing of the burkini (as well as topless swimsuits) in municipal swimming pools, triggering an avalanche of criticism. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin accused Mr Piolle of entertaining “communitarian provocation” and that authorizing the wearing of the burkini in public swimming pools was contrary to France’s values. Once again, French Muslim women found themselves stigmatised and targeted.

They were accused of being a conduit for Islamist extremism, separatism, patriarchy, and violating the principle of laïcité. This discourse, like so much before it, happened without inviting Muslim women themselves to be a part of the conversation.

Modern interpretations of Laïcité – France’s unique way of managing church-state relations – have become an ideological tool for political identity, a factor of division, and the exclusion of French Muslims from the societies in which they live. How did we get here?

The meaning of the term “laïcité” has become obscured by the fact that its interpretations are diverse and sometimes contradictory.

Its current usage betrays the very liberal intention of the 1905 law on “Separation of Church and State”, the ruling which forms the foundation of the principle. 

Laïcité once defined the territories in which the State is sovereign and religious belief is left at the door. It generates obligations for the state to remain neutral and guarantee the religious freedom and freedom of conscience of its citizens, within the limits of public order.

A significant misinterpretation of the 1905 law persists to this day. The law does not require religious belief or visible signs thereof to be kept in the home. However, politicians and pundits on a daily basis cite the law in their efforts to erase any religious visibility (especially Islam) in the public square.

Any attempt to show visible attributes of faith outside the home are deemed to be a threat to a commonly-held belief that France’s citizens should conform to an imaginary notion of what it means to be French. This very illiberal interpretation of laïcité and religious neutrality goes against the essence of the Law of 1905.

As France continues to mature as a country made up of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, vulnerable communities have begun to advocate for their rights to be treated as equals with their fellow French citizens without giving up their personal beliefs and customs.

Critics of the clothing choices of Muslim women have forgotten the fundamental freedoms of the Declaration of  the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789, often seeking to free Muslim women from their religion. Even when Muslim women dare to defend their basic rights, they are often accused of being radicalised.

A good Muslim woman is a quiet invisible woman. The irony is that many Muslim women who wear their burkinis to swimming pools or wear headscarves during sports competitions actually go against rigorous interpretations of Islam. In order to justify burkini bans, politicians or commentators will often point to Muslim-majority countries who have similar prohibitions, as if authoritarian states were a role model for France to follow.

Muslim women are perceived as a threat because they shake France’s status quo. The illusion of France being a colour-blind nation has been broken. If France really believes that multicultural communities threaten the character of the country, it must not believe that its culture – one that the entire world looks up to – is actually that strong.

But if France is to take its place in a multicultural world, it needs to come to terms with how vulnerable communities fit within the notion of French identity and make room for all its citizens.

Rim-Sarah Alouane is a doctoral candidate and a researcher in comparative law at the University Toulouse Capitole in France. Her research focuses on civil liberties, constitutional law, and human rights in Europe and North America. She tweets @rimsarah

Member comments

  1. Well said! I agree with you that all this controvery about burkinis and headscarves is based on a misunderstanding of the basic principles of the French republic.

  2. First and foremost it should remain the choice of the individual as to how they dress (within reason of course). If Muslim woman feel more comfortable wearing a burkini, do so (not all do and I know enough Tunisians to know that binikis are more to their taste than you would expect).

    Equally, for women and men of other cultures there should be choice allowed. All the swimming pools local to me require men to wear speedos…claiming it is more hygienic than swimming trunks. This is the only reason I no longer swim…as I refuse to wear the budgie smuggler – that to me is exposing far too much flesh and I am not comfortable wearing it.

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POLITICS

French locals urge Macron to eject mayor over child sexual images

A group of villagers in eastern France said on Friday they have asked President Emmanuel Macron to remove their mayor, who refuses to resign despite an investigation into allegations he accessed child sexual images.

French locals urge Macron to eject mayor over child sexual images

Dominique Lott, mayor of the Echenon municipality home to around 800 people, was one of 48 men arrested in mid-November raids across France.

He has acknowledged “some of the acts of which he is accused” ahead of his April trial, Dijon prosecutors said when he was detained.

They added that he possessed “images and videos depicting minors aged five to 15 in suggestive poses, or engaging in sex acts with each other or with adults”.

But the mayor is not required to resign by law, stoking anger among villagers.

By Friday, a petition demanding he step down had gathered almost 600 signatures.

National politicians Adrien Quatennens — an MP accused of striking his wife — and Julien Bayou — the Greens chief who stepped down over accusations of “psychological violence” against a former partner — had quit, so “why not our mayor?”, the signatories asked.

“Only two” village councillors out of 14 have stepped down in protest, said local resident and mother of an eight-month-old boy, Wardia Haya-Cartaut, one of the authors of the letter to Macron.

For its part, the local council said in a statement that “the justice system will take care of the trial, that’s not up to us”.

“Legally speaking, we have no room for manoeuvre,” the council added.

But Haya-Cartaut quotes chapter and verse from the legal code on local government, which allows the French president to recall a mayor.

“Without disrespecting the principle of presumption of innocence, it is in your power to issue a disciplinary measure,” she wrote to Macron alongside two other local mothers.

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