France’s highest administrative court has suspended a town’s burqini ban, suggesting a legal precedent for all of the French resort municipalities that have issued the controversial decrees. The ruling on Friday by the Council of State, after a challenge by lawyers for two human rights groups, is aimed specifically at the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, near Nice, but is expected to affect all 26 towns in which mayors had issued the decrees against the full-body swimwear, in what is being seen as a test case. The decree was worded as a ban on “beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation,” citing concerns about public order, hygiene and secularism, in the wake of deadly Islamic extremist attacks this summer in Nice and Normandy. Under the French legal system, a temporary decision can be handed down while the court takes more time to prepare a judgment on the legality of the case.
The bans have divided government and society, and drawn anger both at home and abroad. In a scathing dispatch published on Thursday by Human Rights Watch, France Director Bénédicte Jeannerod protests the ban, arguing that “under the pretext of defending France’s republican principles and women’s rights, the burkini ban actually amounts to banning women from the beach, in the middle of the summer, just because they wish to cover their bodies in public. It’s almost a form of collective punishment against Muslim women for the actions of others.”
Photos showing police on a beach in Nice, France, ordering a woman to remove some of her clothing, which appears to be a burqini, caused outrage on social media late Tuesday night.
She argues the ban stigmatizes practicing Muslim women — excluding them from public spaces and the right to leisure activities, freedom of attire and to practice their faith — and “risks increasing tensions between communities, while hardening the feeling of injustice felt by some Muslims in France.”
An opposing argument, exemplified by columns like this one for The Hill, claim the all-body cover-ups indicate that “a woman’s honor is directly tied to her clothes and a man is not responsible for his actions if he is tempted by a woman. This is an ideology that absolves men from any responsibility of committing the crime of rape and blames the victim for not protecting her honor by covering up.” The piece, by Hala Arafa, provocatively argues that the “hijab ideology,” revived in the 1980s, “is why young Muslims today think they have the right to sexually assault uncovered women,” citing gang assaults in Cologne, Germany.
“If hijab becomes an accepted public phenomenon, a modern society cannot teach its future generations that a woman’s dress is not an excuse for rape,” Arafa writes.
Human Rights Watch’s Jeannerod said the focus on the burqini is a case of misplaced energy: “During a time of national emergency, surely French police have better things to do than humiliate women on the country’s beaches.”