UPDATE: France’s top administrative court, the Council of State, has now overturned a ban of the Burkini in the French town Villeneuve-Loubet. This decision is expected to set a legal precedent for other French towns which have similar bans. (As reported by the Associated Press) This ruling is part of a test case that resulted in a temporary ruling before the definitive ruling is given.

 On Thursday 25th August 2016 a women-only protest took place, triggered by French policemen forcing a Muslim woman to remove her tunic in front of her daughter on a beach in Nice following a recent burkini ban. Other organisers have planned protests for the 26th and 27th August and 3rd September.

The burkini is a full-body swimsuit invented in 2004 by Aheda Zanetti. It enables Muslim women to perform physical activity as well as adhering to the Islamic faith’s beliefs about modesty.

sisters united, we’ll never be divided

The legislation passed to ban the burkini in 26 French towns incited varying degrees of disapproval across the world. On 25th August 2016 requests were sent to the French Council of State to overturn these bans.

In London, sand was placed outside the French Embassy to recreate a beach. Protestors, dressed in various forms of swimwear, gathered to voice their anger about what they believe to be a violation of Islamic and Female rights.

WearWhatYouWant 2016
The French woman who spoke in favour of the French government

During the protest a French woman voiced a controversial opinion. She supported the French authorities and encouraged her audience to promote women’s rights in general, not solely women’s right to wear burkinis. The other protesters disagreed. They chanted, ‘sisters united, we’ll never be divided.’ to illustrate their solidarity on this matter.

Kulsoom Raza, the Panoptic’s Comments Editor, interviewed two event organisers and two protestors.

One of the event organisers, Fariah Syed, gave her opinions about whether or not the forced removal of the tunic was an Islamophobic or sexist issue. She felt that it related more to Islamophobia because, “it was only the Muslim woman that was told to strip in front of armed police officers, in front of her daughter who was crying. And that’s just unacceptable.”

With regards to the aims of the protest, Fariah answered that it was to raise awareness. She hoped that, with greater understanding of, and tolerance towards, the Muslim faith, non-Muslims would realise that Muslim women do not wear the burkini for comfort or fun but for religious purposes.

WearWhatYouWant 2016
Esmat Jeraj, Event Organiser

Another event organiser, Esmat Jeraj, voiced her belief about the absurdity of some of the French authorities’ attitude. She found it laughable that the burkini could be considered an offensive item and was outraged that the Mayor of Cannes could suggest that, by wearing the burkini, the Muslim women were pledging their allegiance to ISIS. She questioned how anyone’s dress could demonstrate their allegiance to a terrorist organisation.

When asked if she believed that the protest would cause change, Esmat replied that she hoped the French authorities would be further encouraged to reconsider the ban. Esmat was hopeful for change since she believed that public sentiment in France supported the challenging of the ban. The Muslim woman on the beach had been requested to remove her tunic, not a burkini, which Esmat believed emphasised the Islamophobia surrounding the event. It was not merely a ban of a burkini but a ban of any form of dress worn by Muslim women.

When likewise asked about the prospective success of the protest, Aina Khan, a protestor, held a more pessimistic view. Aina mentioned that it would be idealistic to believe that the protest would cause a change in policies and this therefore highlighted the decline in the rights of women, especially Muslim women. Herself a Muslim, Aina said that she and other Muslim women held the same autonomous position as any other woman and did not wear the hijab because of oppression: she could think for herself and disliked others telling her what she supposedly believes.

somehow a woman’s body becomes an area of policing for a security threat that is totally unrelated and that Islamic culture is being confused with terrorism

Erin O’Halloran, another protestor, related her own personal experience of living in both the West and the Middle East as her motivation for attending the protest. She disagreed with the views that Western countries were safer or freer places for women to live in compared to Middle Eastern countries. Angered that a Muslim woman on a beach could be viewed as a threat, Erin commented that the security threat posed by ISIS was “pretty much explicitly posed by men and that somehow a woman’s body becomes an area of policing for a security threat that is totally unrelated and that Islamic culture is being confused with terrorism.”

After living in Beirut, Erin discovered that she was more vulnerable to harassment and threats of sexual violence in Western countries such as England and Spain than in Beirut. This caused Erin to take issue with the promotion in France that it is a country of women’s rights, “because what we’re seeing with these policies is the exact opposite of that. We’re seeing women’s bodies becoming an appropriate place for male police officers and for a state to try and set the boundaries of a culture war.”

Erin believed that these aggressive policies would alienate Muslim from mainstream society, citizen rights and their freedom of movement. The banning of the burkini would encourage Muslim women to refrain from going to the beach rather than making them wear a bikini. To discourage Muslim women from using public spaces causes their families to keep them at home to protect them from potential aggression.

We’re seeing women’s bodies becoming an appropriate place for male police officers and for a state to try and set the boundaries of a culture war.

London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan also voiced his opinion over the recent event in France. He condemned the recent burkini ban in certain French towns, saying that, ‘I don’t think anyone should tell women what they can and can’t wear. Full stop’.

A few posts on the Facebook event, however, raised concerns about the protests: scheduled at 12-2pm, some workers were unable to attend; a man complained that it was restricted to a women-only event; it was more pertinent to wear a hijab or burkini rather than any form of swimwear; the protest might detract from islamophobia, focusing too much on sexism.

Post in the comments section below to voice your opinion on this matter.

Kath Walkling

Images: Panoptic, 2016

2 replies on “#wearwhatyouwant: Islamophobia and Sexism in the West

  1. think that the concerns raised by the Facebook page are legitimate, in particular that protests segregated by sex or that focus on sexism fail to address the real issue at stake here. The issue that this article and its predecessor should be debating is whether the French government’s policy of Laïcité (the disassociation of the state and religion) is the correct way to try and create an integrated and peaceful society in France. The French government promotes secularity in schools and government-linked professions: that is to say that the wearing of the crucifix, the kippah, and the turban, as well as the burqa, is banned in these instances, affecting both males and females of all religions. This is something that is not present in the majority of the rest of western Europe and perhaps the debate should be had about whether it is time to reconsider Laïcité when it causes more social issues than it solves. The burkini ban is not a government policy but an incorrect interpretation of France’s broad laws regarding the conspicuous display of religion in French society by some right-wing mayors in the south of the country following the recent events in Nice, which is why the ban has rightfully been deemed unlawful by the French courts. To frame this debate as revolving around sexism fails to give the topic of religious co-existence (or lack-thereof) in French society the platform for discussion it deserves at the present time. We should be debating about how to integrate society, rather than looking for ways to divide it (e.g., ‘I wish I could base this argument more on the issue of sexism than Islamophobia…etc.’ from Kulsoom Raza’s previous article). While sexism is a prevalent and important issue throughout the world, in this instance the debate must be about a person’s right to reasonable religious expression, regardless of their gender.

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