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Burqini bans put France's secularism in the spotlight

Posted August 22

In response to recent terror attacks, some French leaders are taking a hard look at beach-appropriate fashion.

Cannes Mayor David Lisnard announced on July 28 that the burqini, a modest swimwear option associated with Muslim women, would no longer be allowed on the city's beaches. He called the garment, which covers a woman's head, arms and most of her legs, a "symbol of Islamic extremism" and said people who disobey the ban will be fined 38 euros ($42) and asked to leave the beach, The Atlantic reported.

"Access to beaches and for swimming is banned to any person wearing improper clothes that are not respectful of good morals and secularism," the bylaw reads, according to Relevant magazine. "Beachwear that displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is liable to create risks of disrupting public order."

A judge upheld the burqini ban Aug. 13, and it will govern beachgoers until Aug. 31. Similar measures have been announced in Villeneuve-Loubet and Sisco, Yahoo News reported.

Lisnard and other supporters say the measure will increase public safety, but critics argue the burqini ban will further damage the relationship between government leaders and France's Muslim community.

"As with so much in the overlapping debates about immigration, integration, Islam and terror in France, this measure smacks of political posturing. It's not as if the Croisette in Cannes is crawling with women in these designer body suits (which is what many burqinis are), and it's unlikely the rule will be enforced against the Saudi and other Gulf princesses coming in from their yachts," wrote Christopher Dickey for The Daily Beast (note: there is one obscenity in the article). "At its most obvious level, this is about a right-wing politician taking a stand not just against burqinis, but, symbolically, against Muslims, and presenting it as a matter of law and order."

State secularism is one of the guiding principles of French law, but, in recent years, "laïcité" has been wielded like a weapon against the Muslim community, as The New York Times reported last year. The full-face Islamic veil is banned and schools can't serve halal menus, but Catholic students get to stay home on most religious holidays because they correspond with state celebrations.

"In theory, laïcité promotes egalitarianism, keeping religious belief private. But critics say that in practice it has become a pretext for exclusion and discrimination," The Times reported.

Terror attacks have heightened French fears about the rise of Islam within their country. Around 5 million Muslims live in France, comprising 8 percent of the population, the article noted.

And so many French leaders and citizens take comfort in policies like the burqini ban, arguing that it's important to take quick and decisive action against groups that pose a threat to French communities, Dickey of The Daily Beast wrote.

"One would think the issue would be the behavior of men who might gather in mobs, start scuffles and otherwise disturb the peace," he noted. "But for the mayor of Cannes the problem lies with those provocative women (in burqinis) — a sentiment that weirdly mirrors the reasoning in some Muslim-majority countries that require women to wear burqinis if they go to the beach at all, lest they incite disorder by lust-crazed men."

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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