Burkini: Muslim women’s harmless choice creates storm in France


A harmless desire to swim in public pools in a burkini, a full-body swimsuit, by a group of Muslim women in the southeastern Grenoble city of France has triggered national outrage this summer.

A French court on Wednesday suspended the decision by the Grenoble municipal council to authorize the long outfit known as a burkini in the city’s public pools for religious purposes, which it said seriously undermined the principle of public service neutrality. Public authorities and far-right political parties claim that donning the burkini is a “symbolic submission” to extremism.

“Our fight is not just about our right to wear a long costume but also for those who want to swim topless. It’s a true fight for feminism,” said Naima, a resident of the city and member of the Alliance Citoyenne (Citizens Alliance), the organization behind the campaign to lift clothing restrictions in the municipal pools of Grenoble.

According to the recently approved modifications, from June 1, the city’s municipal pools were to abolish restrictions on swimwear. The relaxed rules would allow women and men to wear full-body swimming costumes or swim topless if they want.

However, the regulation peeved the Interior Ministry and the local prefecture challenged the authorization for the burkini in a court of law, which has now ruled against the wearing of the long costume. The suspension of the rules is a huge setback for Grenoble’s Muslim women who have been fighting for access to the city’s public pools for the last four years.

A long fight

France follows stringent rules when it comes to the public display of religion and religious signs. A 2004 law prohibits the wearing of the hijab or the headscarf along with other religious symbols in public schools and a 2010 legislation outlaws full face-covering Islamic veils or the burqas in public. While the wearing of the burkini is not banned, several municipalities have adopted a ban disallowing women with full-bodied swimsuits on the beaches and in public pools.

To fight against the indiscriminate ruling that prevented their access to the city council’s pools, Muslim women from Grenoble’s Citizens Alliance formed the Muslim Women’s Union to protest against this and other discrimination on religious grounds.

“We were made to stand on the side if we accompanied our children to the pool. If we got in with the long costume the staff would scream at us to get out or call the cops,” said a mother who did not want to be named.

In summer 2019, the association wrote several letters to the Office of Mayor Erick Piolle and the city council, wanting to initiate a dialogue to change the clothing rules, only to be overlooked with a stiff silence. Then one day, they mobilized to launch a nonviolent protest – by demonstrating in the external premises of a public pool dressed in the burkini to grab the attention of the authorities.

Some of the protesters broke the security cordon and jumped inside the pool.

“We were elated with joy. This was our civil disobedience. We wanted to show that a woman swimming in a burkini was harmless and the rules were silly,” Naima recalled. The happiness was brief and the women were promptly evicted by the local cops and suspended from coming to the pool for a period of two months.

‘Pools for all’

The citizens’ campaign continued in the following year amid the pandemic, but the previous year’s demonstration had created resentment among the council authorities who refused to engage in any dialogue. The women were, however, determined to dismantle the patriarchal rules and free municipal pools from allowing all kinds of costumes.

What followed was a novel way of protest – a pool party. Demonstrators carried inflatable pools, filled them with water, and sat inside dressed in burkinis, chanting “pools for everyone and all women.” The action was disrupted once again as cops descended on the party and physically assaulted the protesters.

“We were just trying to swim and make a point. Instead, they called the cops on us as if we robbed a bank,” Naima, said, recalling the day’s events.

The union then expanded its campaign to include non-Muslim citizens who also felt constrained by the archaic rules. They backed their arguments for wider support with scientific research to prove that the long costume did not create hygiene issues in the pool and that change in the clothing regulations would benefit transgender people, women who were not comfortable with skin exposure as well as those wanting to bathe topless.

“Our basic argument was to let women decide what they want to wear or not wear,” said Naima, who had to forgo swimming from the time she started wearing the hijab 10 years ago. “It’s a very simple demand to allow us access to the pools in the costume we are comfortable with,” she stressed.

Reclaiming right to swim

The signature campaign yielded the support of nearly 2,300 citizens, including men who saw it as a reasonable demand. The union once again knocked at the doors of the council, clamoring for a discussion on the possible change in the clothing rules. To their surprise, the council agreed to a hearing but maintained they were not in a position to decide on modifying the rules.

Then suddenly a few weeks ago, the union women were shocked to learn of Piolle’s proposal for amending the rules. Piolle, an Ecologist Party leader, said he supports the feminist agenda behind the proposal. He also cited the anguish of transgender people who are held back from accessing the pools due to fear of being ostracized or those who prefer the full costume due to faith or for sun protection.

The new regulations, approved on May 16 by a narrow margin that lift all restrictions on swimwear and allow women to wear the long costume or swim bare-breasted, have raised a storm in the pool.

Besides the far-right politicians, even Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has accused Piolle and the Grenoble council of wading too deep in the troubled water. He claimed the rules were against the 2021 legislation dubbed as anti-separatism law or “reinforcing the respect of the principles of the Republic” to battle radicalism that obligates public bodies to uphold secular values and maintain neutrality.

Meanwhile, the Muslim women of Grenoble, who were eagerly awaiting to step out in the public pools on June 1 when the new rules were due to be enforced, must wait for an indefinite time to reclaim the right to swim. “We get a lot of hate for being Muslim women in France,” Naima said.

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