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France’s Top Court Overturns Burkini Ban

French swimmers may keep wearing what they please

A woman wearing a burkini at the beach (Giorgio Montersino via Flickr)
smithsonian.com

For the last month, France’s beaches have been plagued with international controversy after banning swimmers from wearing full-bodied swimsuits known as “burkinis.” Now, thanks to France’s highest administrative court, women taking a dip may go back to wearing whatever they like, no matter how modest.

The burkini looks kind of like a thin wetsuit with some extra features, like a built-in headscarf and dress. It was originally designed to allow Muslim women to go swimming while still sticking to their traditions of dressing modestly. However, following the Bastille Day attack in Nice earlier this summer, dozens of towns in southern France banned the burkini. The argument behind the ban was that women choosing to remain covered in accordance with their religious beliefs and cultural traditions were being provocative and in violation of laws regarding secularism, James McAuley reports for The Washington Post.

In today’s ruling, the French court overturned both of the main arguments for the bans, saying that the swimsuit is neither an insult to women’s equality or a provocation in support of terrorism. The judges stated that the bans instead threatened basic freedoms of French society, including the “freedom to come and go, the freedom of conscience and personal liberty,” McAuley reports.

In the weeks since the bans began, the burkini has become a flash point between those who say local officials are overstepping their bounds in determining what women can wear at the beach and those who see the swimsuit as a symbol of oppression. That argument has even played out at the highest levels of government: just yesterday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls got in a heated back-and-forth with Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem after she denounced the bans, saying they encouraged racist speech and infringed on personal freedoms, Hortense Goulard reports for Politico.

“These regulation were taken in the name of public order,” Valls said, as Goulard reports. “They were taken in a particular moment, on beaches in the South of France, a few days after the Nice attack, in a special context. And the burkini is, once again, the enslavement of women.”

In recent years, the French government has had a particularly keen interest in what Muslim women wear, all the while citing the country’s commitment to secularism. In 2011, the government banned women from wearing the burqa (a full-body garment that includes mesh that obscures the wearer’s eyes) as well as the niqab, a similar veil that leaves an opening for the eyes, Jim Bittermann, Sheena McKenzie and Catherine E. Shoichet report for CNN. However, some have noted that women who dress modestly in adherence to other religions, such as Christian nuns, are still allowed to cover up – even at the beach.

"French authorities must now drop the pretense that these measures do anything to protect the rights of women,” John Dalhuisen, director of Amnesty International’s European branch tells the BBC. “These bans do nothing to increase public safety but do a lot to promote public humiliation."

The burkini may not be for everyone, but as France's highest administrative court has ruled, French women have the right to wear as little—or as much—as they like.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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