France’s “burkini ban” was dealt a blow today as the French high court overturned the controversial rule in the Riviera town of Villeneuve-Loubet. The decision came after a groundswell of protest in response to images of French police patrolling beaches in Nice, including several photos in which armed officers are seen standing over Muslim women, appearing to order them to strip their body-concealing layers.
1:Siam just wore clothes, not burkini.
2:French morality police fined her anyway.
3:Citizens since >3 generations. pic.twitter.com/yXebi3TCea
— b9AcE (@b9AcE) August 24, 2016
These images and word of the harsh enforcement of the ban in some 30 French towns has sparked protest from religious and secular communities alike, who argue that these rules limit women’s freedom and fuel Islamophobia. The hashtag #WearWhatYouWant went viral on Twitter this week, and around the world activists ranging from Catholic nuns to J.K. Rowling and London Mayor Sadiq Khan registered their dismay at the targeting of Muslim women. Political cartoonists also circulated satirical images comparing the French rule to Islamic regulations on women’s clothing.
— ALBAIH (@khalidalbaih) August 24, 2016
In London, 30 demonstrators gathered outside the French embassy on Thursday, creating a makeshift “beach” on the sidewalk outside, complete with sand, swimsuits and signage pledging their support of French women to exercise their freedom of expression. Jenny Dawkins, a female priest from the Church of England, was among the demonstrators. She arrived at the protest in her religious uniform, and argued that the Muslim women on France’s beaches deserve the right to practice their own religious faith in their choice of clothing. “They were treated in a way that is totally unacceptable and must have been intimidating and frightening and I wanted to stand in solidarity with them,” she told CNN.
While the decision of the French courts today only applies to one town so far, many expect the precedent to be extended to other cities currently enforcing the ban. Amnesty International’s Europe director, John Dalhuisen, welcomed the ruling “French authorities must now drop the pretence that these measures do anything to protect the rights of women.” So far, the mayor of Corsica has already pledged to uphold the ban regardless of future court rulings, while the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls reiterated his support of the ban, calling burkinis a “symbol of the enslavement of women.”
The “burkini bans” do not actually mention the garment specifically, but rather stipulate that beachwear must be “appropriate,” and “respectful of good morals and of secularism.” Proponents of the ban argue that the burkini is a matter of national security, pointing to the July 14 attacks in Nice that left 86 people dead. The mayor of Cannes has called the burkini “the uniform of extremist Islamism, not of the Muslim religion,” while Nicolas Sarkozy has expressed his support for a nationwide ban on the garment.
Muslim advocates, while welcoming the decision to overturn the ban in Villeneuve-Loubet, expressed their concern that the Islamophobia that prompted the ban will emerge in other forms. Marwan Muhammad, who heads the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, worries that anti-Muslim sentiments will simply be redirected to other forms of religious clothing or halal meals. With this in mind, feminist bloggers and activists worldwide have pledged to remain vigilant in their support of Muslim women in France.