French Burkini Bans Revive Debate On Muslim Clothing

26 August, 2016

France's top administrative court has ruled that French towns cannot ban women from wearing a kind of clothing for swimming on their beaches.

The town of Villeneuve-Loubet, had banned "burkinis," a swimsuit some Muslim women wear to cover their whole bodies.

The court's ruling comes as a worldwide debate has grown over the French bans on burkinis. Some people expressed shock and anger at images of French policemen fining a Muslim woman, and appearing to make her take off a piece of her clothing.

The decision by the Council of State Friday deals with the ban in the Riviera town of Villeneuve-Loubet. But, it is expected to affect all of about 30 French towns and cities that have similar bans.

The city of Nice is one of them. That is where 86 people were killed when a truck ran into a crowd gathered to see fireworks on France's Bastille Day. The Islamic State terror group claimed responsibility for that attack.

In Friday's case, lawyers for two human rights groups argued the ban was not legal. They said the bans are not in keeping with people's freedoms and that mayors did not have the power to tell women what to wear on beaches.

A Muslim woman wears a burkini, a swimsuit that leaves only the face, hands and feet exposed, on a beach in Marseille, France, August 17, 2016.
A Muslim woman wears a burkini, a swimsuit that leaves only the face, hands and feet exposed, on a beach in Marseille, France, August 17, 2016.

Mayors had expressed concern about public order after the deadly attacks by Islamic extremists this summer.

At least one mayor said he will not lift the ban, even after the court's decision. "Here the tension is very, very, very strong and I won't withdraw it," the mayor of Sisco told BFM-TV Friday.

Some top political leaders say the swimsuits oppress women and violate France's secular values. But the bans have divided France's government, as other leaders spoke out against the laws.

What in the world is a burkini?

The name "burkini" combines two words: "bikini" and "burka."

A bikini is a small, two-piece swimsuit shaped like women's undergarments.

Burkas are what some Muslim women wear to cover their whole bodies except for a small opening for their eyes.

In comparison, a burkini covers a woman's body. It leaves only her face, hands and feet showing.

Burkinis were first created by Australian designer Aheda Zanetti in 2004. She said she made them so Muslim women who choose to wear a head covering can take part in water activities and other sports.

A history of banning Muslim clothes

French officials banned burkinis for reasons including water safety and security concerns. France has outlawed Muslim clothes before. It banned the face-covering veil, as well as the head-covering veil, in public schools.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls described the burkini, along with the veil, as a form of enslavement.

"The burkini is not a new swimsuit model, it is not a trend," Valls told La Provence newspaper in support of the ban. He said it "goes against modern society."

A new image for Muslim women

Many see the ban as discrimination against Muslims. Others say officials do not understand Muslim women's new image.

Neslihan Cevik designs clothes for Muslim women. Cevik says Muslim women who wear veils are involved in many activities of modern life. "But the market hasn't taken them seriously so far."

In addition to being a designer, Cevik is also a sociologist who wrote a book on Muslims.

"The clothing for that woman has been like, ‘she's oppressed, she stays at home or goes to her in-laws,'" Cevik adds. "It's only now that markets are catching up with that new image."

Cevik's brand targets young, college-aged women who go to cafes and listen to Latin music. They want what is called "Muslim hipster fashion" — backpacks with matching headscarves, jeans or pleated skirts.

They do not want to wear the usual long overcoats, she says. "They'll do anything any young female would do. What's different is they're passionately religious."

A business opportunity

Neslihan Cevik, who is Turkish, launched M-Line Fashion last December. Her online company has been growing by 20 percent each month.

Most of her customers are Turkish. But the business has customers from France and other European countries, as well as South Africa.

Cevik sells stylish long tops called tunics, and veils. She hopes to add a line of Muslim swimwear by next summer. She does not like the ones she sees for sale.

"It's so ugly right now," says Cevik of burkinis. "That's one of the biggest problems for Muslim women. Whatever you do, all the designs we've had so far have been so ugly."

Designers such as Cevik say that the swimsuit and other modern Muslim women's wear can be liberating. They say the clothing industry is far behind the needs of conservative modern Muslim women.

They say the industry could be making much more money designing clothes Muslim women want.

Some well-known stores and brands are already starting to sell clothes targeting the Muslim market. They include Britain's Marks & Spencer and House of Fraser. Mango and DKNY have also launched "Ramadan" clothes collections connected to the holy Muslim holiday.

Sales of clothes for the Muslim women market are expected to be worth several billions of dollars in the next few years.

I'm Anne Ball.

Lisa Bryant wrote this story for VOA News. Anne Ball wrote it for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor. We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section and visit us on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

swimsuit – n. clothing people wear to swim in

undergarment – n. a piece of underwear worn under clothes

veil – n. a piece of cloth worn to cover one's head and/or face

enslavement – n. the action of making someone a slave

trend – n. something currently popular or fashionable

ugly – adj. opposite of beautiful

liberating – adj. making you feel free

passionately – adv. showing or having strong emotions