A photograph of armed policemen surrounding a Muslim woman on a beach in Nice has sparked global outcry. In the aftermath of the controversial ‘Burkini Ban,’ four police officers, armed with handguns, pepper spray and batons surround a woman wearing a blue headscarf and blouse. An officer wrote up a note and reportedly issued a fine despite the woman removing the top covering her swimsuit.
The disturbing image follows the introduction of a ban on burkinis — a form of swimwear marketed at women who desire a modest alternative to typical swimwear — in several major French beach towns.
More than 15 resorts in the French Riviera have banned the burkini, including the city of Nice, which was hit by a devastating terrorist attack on Bastille Day that killed 85 people.
French leaders have cited the threat of terrorism and the country’s secular values in an attempt to justify the ban.
“Beachwear which ostentatiously 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 (crowds, scuffles etc) which it is necessary to prevent," said the mayor of Cannes.
The city's head of municipal services Thierry Migoule took the rhetoric one step further and declared: “We are not talking about banning the wearing of religious symbols on the beach ... but ostentatious clothing which refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements which are at war with us.”
Bluntly suggesting that a woman’s choice of swimwear could indicate whether or not she is a terrorist sympathizer, these measures have stoked an already heated debate on secularism, religious freedom, and women’s rights.
And now, the image of a woman in Nice forced to strip off her layers by a group of armed men has added fuel to the controversy which centers on one key question: Is forcing a woman to uncover herself just as bad as forcing her to cover up?
Many across the Twittersphere decried the #BurkiniBan as the latest photo emerged:
Women forced 2 conform to dress code to make point that women "forced" 2 conform 2 religious dress code not OK...? https://t.co/Z10mOqsm3p— Susan Sarandon (@SusanSarandon) August 24, 2016
Pretty sure a future of global peace and harmony doesn't start with making women take off their leggings #BurkiniBan— Caitlin Moran (@caitlinmoran) August 24, 2016
Just let this sink in. Men with guns forcing a women to undress, with the weight of the law behind them. pic.twitter.com/4BI16Bbss9— Abdul-Azim আজিম (@AbdulAzim) August 23, 2016
Whether it’s a hijab, a niqab, a burqa, or a burkini, what a Muslim woman chooses to wear has become the subject of intense scrutiny, caught between competing perspectives on what it means to be liberated. But it’s not simply a question of what a Muslim woman wears. The controversy over the burkini reflects the world's enduring desire to police women’s bodies — a tendency literally captured in the viral image of the woman being forced to strip by a group of policemen.
It cannot be denied that in some contexts, religious clothing is a form of oppression. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and a number of other Muslim-majority countries do enforce a dress code for women in public places, denying women control over their own bodies.
While challenging France’s #BurkiniBan, feminists or human rights campaigners cannot afford to ignore the reality that for millions of women around the world, modesty is not a personal choice. After the Syrian town of Manbij was liberated from ISIS, the powerful photos of women burning their niqabs and men shaving their beards sent ripples of joy around the world — a moving symbol of liberation from an ultra-reactionary movement that aims to destroy the most personal freedoms.
However, the idea that any Muslim woman who chooses to wear a burkini — or any form of dress based on her religious belief — has been coerced into doing so is an unfair assumption. Aheda Zanetti, an Australian Muslim and the creator of the burkini, has defended the item against the recent attacks.
“I created the burkini to give women freedom, not to take it away,” she says in an op-ed in The Guardian. Growing up in Australia, she desperately sought an outfit that could enable her to pursue an active lifestyle, whilst remaining faithful to her religious beliefs.
Saddened by the French authorities’ response to the burkini, she says: “I think they have misunderstood a garment that is so positive – it symbolizes leisure and happiness and fun and fitness and health and now they are demanding women get off the beach and back into their kitchens?”
Demand for the burkini has apparently skyrocketed since the controversy first emerged — perhaps a sign that the item is not going to disappear any time soon.
Fundamentally, nobody should dictate what a woman can or cannot wear. It is unfair to force a woman into a burkini, just as it is unfair to force her out of one. In its attempt to fight terrorism, France should remember that Muslim women are also victims of terrorism, in France and around the world. Scapegoating Muslim women because they are a visible target can only intensify the divisions threatening French society. Until the country's authorities accept this, the principles of "liberté, égalité and fraternité" will remain a distant dream.