France and the Burkini-Ban Debate

France has always prided itself on its secularism, referred to as laïcité in French. This is one of the core concepts within its constitution and it has been used as a reason in recent years to ban religious clothing – notably the burqa. In 2010, France became the first European country to pose an outright ban on the burqa, which is the full-face veil worn by some Muslim women. The niqab and hijab, by contrast, only cover parts of the face or hair. These fell under a 2004 French law that prohibited religious wear such as headscarves in public schools. To find these laws, one of the best places to look is Legifrance. We also have French laws in our print collection; our research guide on French law may be useful for identifying which code to search. For assistance with the print, please feel free to seek out assistance at the international law reference desk.

One might wonder why the French would target one religion when they seemingly don’t care about the Catholics or Jews or other religious types who might walk among them in various forms of religious dress. After all, no one seems to be asking nuns to remove their habits in the classroom. Or the beach, for that matter.

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The argument behind such laws has been that Muslim standards for feminine modesty are overly restrictive and impede on the rights of women, thus infringing on the French rights of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Enter the burkini in the post-Nice-attack atmosphere. Suddenly, this item of clothing, which Muslim women can choose to wear if they want to go to the beach, was another example of the enslavement of women by Islam. Worse than that, in the words of presidential hopeful, Nicolas Sarkozy, it was a provocation. Nice outlawed the burkini because it “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks.” Several cities followed suit.

The world did not react with warmth and joy. When the following picture made the rounds, people were upset because this image doesn’t look like the image of a woman provoking others with her dress. It doesn’t look like the image of a woman terrorizing others. Instead it looks like the image of a woman being policed for no good reason and being asked to remove clothing against her own wishes, surrounded by armed men.

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On Friday, August 26, the Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest administrative court, overturned the burkini-ban that had been instituted by 26 coastal towns. The decision can be read here. It can also be found, eventually, on Legifrance. The judges refute that the burkini is a symbol of terror or inequality, stating:

« l’arrêté litigieux a ainsi porté une atteinte grave et manifestement illégale aux libertés fondamentales que sont la liberté d’aller et venir, la liberté de conscience et la liberté personnelle. »

Basically, that the ban is manifestly illegal because it deprives people of fundamental liberties, such as the liberty to come and go, the liberty of conscience, and personal liberty.

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