Burkini: How a swimsuit has brought the rule of law to sink on French beaches

By Amel Yacef and Michael Privot, Chair and Director of the European Network Against racism (ENAR)

2 September 2016 - France has been in the spotlight this summer, starting with a number of mayors banning burkinis from beaches in their towns and escalating into women simply wearing a headscarf on the beach being forced to undress by policemen or be fined. All this in the name of a certain vision of secularism, women’s rights and the fight against terrorism.

The rule of law seems to have gone down the drain with the political hysteria around the burkini. French local authorities and administrative courts have put forward arguments that violate fundamental rights in upholding the bans in various coastal cities of France. Legal arguments no longer seem to work for authorities and part of public opinion. Although the Council of State, France’s highest administrative court, recently ordered the suspension of the ban in the city of Villeneuve-Loubet, stating that the decrees led to illegal infringements on fundamental freedoms, mayors are now refusing to respect this decision.

The burkini bans and subsequent abuses in enforcing them are symptomatic of the very real and disproportionate impact of Islamophobia on Muslim women. Discrimination and violence are a daily reality for Muslim women, not only in France but across Europe, as our recent “Forgotten women” report has shown. Muslim women are more likely to be victims of hate crime and of discrimination than either white women or ethnic minority or Muslim men. In both employment discrimination and hate crime, the headscarf (or other clothing such as long skirts) acts as a trigger, because it is perceived as a visible marker of Muslim and woman identity.

Our report also shows that prejudices and stereotypical representations about Muslim women are spread by media and public discourse. This negative attention to Muslim women contributes to creating a fertile ground for discriminatory practices and violence on the ground and creates structural inequalities. The latest burkini bans are a blatant illustration of this.

They effectively prevent all Muslim women wearing a burkini – or a headscarf as recent arrests have shown – from going to the beach, a public space. This is a clearly discriminatory measure – both on the grounds of religion and of gender. The bans do nothing to actually empower or “emancipate” women, despite their purported goal according to defenders of the decrees.

These bans are also dangerous insofar as they are conveyed as a way to combat terrorism, insidiously linking Muslim women wearing religious clothing to terrorism. They are serving to further stigmatise the Muslim community, and Muslim women in particular, and exacerbate tensions between communities – exactly what Daesh is striving to achieve.

If women’s rights and emancipation are truly a concern for French authorities, excluding and stigmatising women is hardly the way to go about it. Instead, measures could include mandatory training sessions for all citizens and residents on the principles of non-violence, gender equality and mutual respect. They could also include supporting projects by feminist organisations, allocating sufficient means to fight gender-based violence and sexism, developing women’s empowerment programmes, imposing quotas where necessary, sanctioning sexual harassment, etc. Muslim community organisations should also play a role by adopting concrete measures to denounce domestic violence, forced or arranged marriages and sexual abuse, and to provide support to victims.

The multiple discrimination and intersectional discrimination faced by Muslim women must also be addressed in national and EU laws and policies, acknowledging the combined effects of discrimination on the grounds of gender, ethnicity and religion.

This will require political courage, perseverance and the will to have a long-term perspective and vision. Something France’s and Europe’s politicians urgently need to address current challenges.


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