France’s Socialist prime minister has expressed support for local bans of burkinis, saying the swimwear is based on the “enslavement of women” and therefore incompatible with French values.
The burkini, a wetsuit-like garment that covers the torso, limbs and head, has prompted a growing national discussion about Islam and women’s bodies, even though it’s only worn by a handful of Muslims.
Three French Mediterranean towns have banned the garment on beaches this summer, citing security concerns after a season marred by deadly extremist attacks. Critics say the bans are discriminatory and could inflame religious and social tensions.
Many also see the bans themselves as sexist, decrees from male mayors telling women what they can and can’t wear.
But much of the French political class, from the left to the far right, is opining the opposite - that burkinis oppress women, and therefore have no place in a country whose motto celebrates equality and freedom.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in an interview published Wednesday in the La Provence newspaper that the swimwear represents a “provocation” and an “archaic vision” that women are “immodest, impure and that they should therefore be totally covered. That is not compatible with the values of France.”
“In the face of provocation, the nation must defend itself,” Valls said.
The government’s women’s affairs minister, Laurence Rossignol, took a similar stance.
“The burkini is ... a particular vision particular of the place of the woman. It cannot be considered only as a question of fashion or individual liberty,” Rossignol said on Europe-1 radio.
However, Valls said he’s not in favour of a national law against burkinis.
“I support those who have taken measures. They are motivated by the will to encourage social unity,” he told La Provence, adding, “I don’t think we should legislate the issue. General rules on clothing restrictions cannot be a solution.”
French laws banning face-covering veils in public and headscarves in schools - based on the widely held view that they violate French secularism and oppress women - have alienated many among France’s 5 million Muslims. Violent extremists have also cited the bans as one of their justifications for targeting France.
Valls called for calm in Corsica, where a clash broke out over the weekend between local residents and bathers of North African origin. Some reports said it started because a young man took a photo of a woman in a burkini, though the exact circumstances of the incident remain unclear.
Rim-Sarah Alouane, a researcher at the University of Toulouse who has written on Muslim and women’s issues, vigorously disagrees.
“Women’s rights imply the right for a woman to cover up,” Alouane, a Muslim born and raised in France, said.
The burkini “was created by Western Muslim women who wanted to conciliate their faith and desire to dress modestly with recreational activities. What is more French than sitting on a beach in the sand?” she asked. “Here we are telling Muslims that no matter what you do even we don’t want you here.”