Macron and Le Pen debate burkini

The burkini controversy that began in summer 2016 reappeared in the televised presidential debate. As the candidates were discussing laïcité (secularism), Marine Le Pen attacked Macron, saying: “Several years ago there were no burkinis on beaches, I know you support them Mr. Macron.” He responded: “Please…Ms. Le Pen…but I don’t speak for you, I don’t need a ventriloquist. I assure you, all is well. When I have something to say, I say it.”

“So what do you have to say about the burkini?” Le Pen asked. “That has nothing to do with secularism because it’s not religious,” Macron responded, “It’s an issue of public order. So, regarding the burkini, I intend to avoid the trap set by those who want to divide society–to create a big debate…The trap in which you are in the midst of falling, by your provocations, is to divide society.”

“The burkini is a problem,” he added. “There are certain mayors, however, who issued orders that were occasionally justified because it was an issue of public order…It’s not a big theoretical problem. Don’t divide society because of it! Be pragmatic and responsible,” he concluded.

Le Pen responded, “I hear a lot of talk about freedom, I would like us to think of these young women, who, today, cannot wear what they want. The veil is imposed on them precisely because we [didn’t pay attention to] Islamist fundamentalists.”

 

France’s Council of State suspends burkini ban

Mayors do not have the right to ban burkinis, France’s highest administrative court ruled Friday. The Council of State’s ruling suspends a ban in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, near Nice, and could affect cities around the country that have prohibited the full-length swimsuit.

More than 30 French towns have banned burkinis, which cover the whole body except for the face, hands and feet. Officials say banning the burkini -worn mostly by Muslim women- is a response to growing terror concerns and heightened tensions after a series of terror attacks.

Human rights activists argue that burkini bans are illegal, and that pushes to outlaw the garment are Islamophobic. They hailed Friday’s ruling as a significant step.

“By overturning a discriminatory ban that is fueled by and is fueling prejudice and intolerance, today’s decision has drawn an important line in the sand,” Amnesty International Europe Director John Dalhuisen said in a statement.

But it’s unclear how other towns with burkini bans will respond to Friday’s decision. If mayors continue to enforce and enact such decrees, they could face similar legal challenges.

No matter what, battles over the burkini in the court- and in the court of public opinion-are far from over.

Friday’s decision was an initial ruling by the Council of State while it continues to prepare its more detailed judgment on the legal issues in the case.

Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said he supports banning burkinis. And former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who plans to run again for president, has said he would immediately enact a national ban of the swimsuits.

Critics of the bans say they discriminate against the women they claim to protect.

“These bans do nothing to increase public safety, but do a lot to promote public humiliation,” Dalhuisen said. “Not only are they in themselves discriminatory, but as we have seen, the enforcement of these bans leads to abuses and the degrading treatment of Muslim women and girls.”

‘Burkini Ban’ trojan horse for banning the veil?

Since the mayor of Cannes banned burkinis on July 28 more than thirty towns and communes in France followed suit. In certain municipalities such as Alpes-Maritimes, Var, Haute-Corse, Bouches-du-Rhône, Pas-de-Calais, and Aude, “correct dress, respectful of morality and secularism” and of “the rules of hygiene and the safety of swimming” is now mandatory.

On August 25, the Council of State will examine one of the “anti-burkini” orders, that of the Villeneuve-Loubet. The ruling will concern much more than beach attire, and affects further possible rulings against the veil in the public sphere at the initiatives of certain mayors.

Burkini or not, the orders have caused rupture and division. “What’s currently happening is a form of extending the need for neutrality or invisibility in areas and to people who were up until now not affected by the 1905 law,” said Marwan Mohammed, sociologist with the CNRS. “There has since been a lobby to extend this to universities as well as to businesses. With the recent orders, we are attacking the public sphere.”

These measures have been denounced by associations such as the CCIF and the League of Human Rights (LDH). “The danger, is that tomorrow we work to ban the veil in public or on public transportation,” said Patrice Spinosi, who defends the LDH.

Movements such as Osez le féminisme and Les Effrontées that usually denounce the veil as a tool of religious oppression, referred to the orders as “acts of humiliation,” of Muslim women. Even Femen and the writer Caroline Fourest, a secular feminist, denounced the orders, with the latter referring to them as “unacceptable.”

The government’s position seems unlikely to soften.  Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, echoed Manuel Valls by stating: “As the Prime Minister indicated, we can understand these orders.”

In a recent interview with Le Figaro Magazine Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a law that would “prohibit any religious symbols in schools and also universities, in the administration, and also in businesses.” The National Front urged a law that went as far as to prohibit “all general, visible, religious symbols in the public arena.”

Muslim women’s dress takes centre-stage again in German debate

Counterterrorism and the burqa

Following the twin attacks in Würzburg and Ansbach in July, a group of conservative interior ministers from Germany’s federal states have published a manifesto demanding enlarged competences for police, army, judiciary, and intelligence services. The politicians from the CDU/CSU party also demand the retraction of laws easing the acquisition of dual citizenship, passed by the red-green government of Gerhard Schröder in 2000.((http://www.haz.de/Nachrichten/Politik/Deutschland-Welt/Innenminister-der-Union-fordern-Burka-Verbot )).

While the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the conservatives’ coalition partner in Berlin, has flatly rejected calls to abolish dual citizenship, responses to added security measures have been more mixed. Yet what has taken centre stage in recent days is another demand from the manifesto – a proposed ‘burqa ban’. This is in spite of the fact that the precise security benefit from such a ban has remained largely unexplored. The initially security-focused discussion has thus gradually morphed into a debate with vaguely ‘civilisational’ overtones.

Echoing many of his colleagues in an opinion piece for the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, leading CDU politician Jens Spahn deems burqa and niqab to be incompatible with the values of an open society and with the kind of public interaction such a society necessitates. According to him, these items of clothing also undermine the integration of recently arrived refugees. ((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/warum-burka-und-niqab-nicht-nach-deutschland-gehoeren-14393282.html )) In an interview in late July, Spahn had struck a distinctly more polemical note, declaring himself to be a “burkaphobe” and accusing Muslims of being sexually repressed. As a remedy, Spahn encouraged Muslims to shower in the nude while at the gym.((http://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article157398148/Ein-Verbot-ist-ueberfaellig-Ich-bin-burkaphob.html ))

Constitutional hurdles

Yet whether a blanket ban on the burqa as Spahn and others demand it would even withstand scrutiny by the German Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) is uncertain at best. In the past, the court has generally set high hurdles to potential state regulation of religious practices. Consequently, already in 2010 a German parliamentary committee came to the conclusion that a straightforward burqa ban would be unconstitutional. ((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/verbotsdebatte-burka-verbieten-geht-das-ueberhaupt-1.3123311 ))

In view of this fact, politicians not just from the CDU but also from the SPD appear to move away from a general ban to more targeted restrictions: more recent interventions in the debate propose prohibiting women from wearing burqa or niqab when appearing in front of a judge or when driving a car.((http://www.n-tv.de/politik/Burka-am-Steuer-soll-verboten-werden-article18438906.html ))

The calmer voices in the often agitated discussion have sought to critique the focus on the burqa as a false debate obscuring the real issues. Indeed, the number of burqa-wearing women in the country  is very small, ranging between a few dozen and several hundred.((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/verbotsdebatte-burka-verbieten-geht-das-ueberhaupt-1.3123311 )) As the Muslim CDU politician Cemile Giousouf stated, “I am against the burqa but it is not the core problem – an extremist understanding of religion is.” Moreover, according to her, “the experience in France shows that a burqa ban does not provide greater security.”(( http://www.haz.de/Nachrichten/Politik/Deutschland-Welt/Cemile-Giousouf-Burkaverbot-bietet-nicht-mehr-Sicherheit ))

From burqa to burkini

France itself, among the pioneers of a burqa ban, has since moved on to debate the ‘burkini’, a piece of swimwear covering all of a woman’s body with the exception of face, hands, and feet.(( http://europe.newsweek.com/burkini-swimsuits-spark-anti-muslim-outrage-sales-488138?rm=eu )) This debate has been considerably more muted in Germany, where the focus has remained on face-covering burqas and niqabs. Indeed, the German Constitutional Court has implicitly legitimised the burkini in the past, when it ruled that co-educational swimming classes in public schools were mandatory, and that those Muslim girls uncomfortable with a co-educational arrangement could wear burkinis.((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/bundesverwaltungsgericht-schwimmunterricht-in-burkini-fuer-muslimische-maedchen-zumutbar-12569208.html ))

In spite of this, in mid-August German Muslim woman reported an incident in which she and one of her daughters were asked to leave a water park near Berlin since their burkinis were deemed to be “inappropriate clothing”. Speaking to Berliner Zeitung, the mother asserted that wearing the burkini was her own independent choice; a choice that one of her daughters had also made while her other daughter had stuck to regular Western swimsuits. Interestingly, she went on to add that she disliked full-body veiling and that she agreed with a burqa ban, but noted that a burkini for her was a completely different thing.((http://www.berliner-zeitung.de/berlin/streit-in-bad-saarow–was–bitte-schoen–ist-an-einem-burkini-so-schlimm—24599592 ))

All of this amply demonstrates that the body of Muslim women is back at the centre of attention. After the string of attacks in Europe and amidst unresolved questions regarding immigration, however, a nuanced engagement with this topic seems to have become even more difficult to achieve.

Manuel Valls ‘supports’ mayors who ban burkinis

In an interview with La Provence, Manuel Valls stated that he “understands” and “supports” the mayors who took steps to ban the burkini, which they judged to be “incompatible with the values of the Republic.”

“I understand the mayors, in this period of tension, who are looking for solutions to avoid disrupting public order,” he stated, insisting, “I support those who took steps, if they are motivated by a desire to encourage the vivre ensemble, without underlying political motivations.”

“The burkini is not is not a new style, a new fashion. It’s the translation of a political aim, against society, based in particular on the subservience of women.”

Request for women-only swimming hour in Amsterdam

A group of women in Amsterdam are seeking a women-only swimming session at an Amsterdam pool, Telegraaf reports. The women wear burkinis to swim but do not want their hands and feet to be visible should men be present. Local councillor Egbert de Vries argued that the pool already has a one-hour naked swimming session for men and should perhaps consider having a women-swimming session as well.