Reviving a three-year old debate over what constitutes appropriate swimwear for women at the beach, a French city shut down its only public pools after Muslim women attempted to swim wearing burkinis despite a ban on them in the city.
The city of Grenoble in southeastern France closed two municipal pools this week after Muslim women went swimming twice in the city’s pools wearing burkinis as a form of civil disobedience.
The move was part of an initiative of civil rights group Alliance Citoyenne, an advocacy group in Grenoble, which planned recurring acts of civil disobedience to overturn the ban. According to the BBC, the group said they were calling the campaign “Operation burkini,” and that they were inspired by Rosa Parks and other members of the civil rights movement in the United States.
“Freedom of conscience. Free access to public services. #burkini” the group said in a Tweet, with a photo of burkini and swimsuit clad men and women in a pool in Grenoble on June 23. The women were fined roughly $40 by officials when they exited the pool.
In response, Grenoble shut down the city’s two public swimming pools.
Matthew Chamussy, the municipal councilor of Grenoble, said in a tweet on June 23 that the burkini ban is about women’s rights.
“I appeal to all elected Republicans of the @VilledeGrenoble . All who share this same attachment to a secular and indivisible republic. Let’s not give in to communitarianism. Women’s rights recede wherever political Islamism advances #Grenoble #burkini” he tweeted.
Grenoble Mayor Eric Piolle said in a June 25 tweet, “When it comes to equal access of a public service, the role of the state is to pose clear and just rules for everyone. National solidarity is at stake…”
Notably, Piolle’s cover photo on Twitter shows him cheering alongside a woman wearing hijab, a Muslim head covering.
Burkinis are a long, modest swimsuit that cover everything but the face, hands and feet. Typically, they consist of at least two pieces: a hooded, long dress, and footless leggings. They are commonly worn by Muslim women.
Citing concerns over safety and overt displays of religious affiliation, several cities and coastal towns in France issued bans in 2016 against such swimwear. The policies cited the French Republic’s concept of laïcité (secularism) as the reason for the ban.
In at least one French town in 2016, the ban was overturned. The Council of State, France’s highest administrative court, ruled that the burkini ban in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet “seriously and clearly illegally breached fundamental freedoms,” including freedom of belief. But the ban remains in many cities.
While officials have stated concerns that burkinis are a symbol of “political Islam,” burkini-wearing women interviewed by The Guardian in 2016 cited personal reasons for the choice, including their religious convictions and their own desires for modesty.
“I choose to dress this way because it gives me freedom. I don’t have to worry about strange men looking at my figure, desiring me in a sexual way or people commenting on the way I look and judging my looks or talking about my clothes,” one woman said.
According to a 2017 Pew study, France has the highest percentage of Muslims of any country in Europe, in large part due to an influx of migrants over the past several years.
The religiosity of these Muslim migrants has clashed with France’s strong adherence to laïcité before, causing France to ban the face veil despite complaints that the move violated religious freedom.
French law also bans hijabs, Jewish skullcaps and large Chrsitian crosses in public schools, as well as the wearing of hijab or other religiously-affiliated clothing on school trips, effectively banning any headscarf-wearing moms from chaperoning their child’s school trips.
The revived burkini dispute also comes amidst new religious freedom worries in France, over the country’s new Universal National Service for teens, a civil service program that will be made mandatory over the next seven years for all French youth age 15-16.
Participants in the program will wear French military uniforms and sing the French anthem daily. They will not be allowed to wear religious symbols, nor will they be released to attend religious services. The meals served at the program will not accommodate for religious dietary needs.
The program is intended to give young people “causes to defend” and “battles to fight in the social, environmental and cultural domains,” according to French President Emmanuel Macron, who proposed the revival of a required service program in the country.
Marc Guidoni, a veteran trainer for the Values of the Republic and Secularism Plan, told the French Catholic newspaper La Vie this week that he was concerned that the program discriminated against young religious believers, and that it went beyond the bounds of secularism required or allowed by French law.
“With the exception of freedom of conscience, the rest of the constitutional framework relating to secularism does not seem to be respected,” Guidoni told La Vie.
“The citizen is free to express his opinions – including religious ones – as long as this does not disturb the functioning of public order.”