Summer may be long gone, but the debate over the burkini ban is far from over

Published 8 November 2016 / By Marie Godin & Giulia Liberatore

Back to Articles

The French public’s discomfort with Muslim women’s clothing is nothing new. Yet the events that unfolded in French coastal towns this summer took us by surprise. At least thirty coastal municipalities, ranging from Menton to Cassis, banned the ‘burkini’, an item of swimwear designed in 2004 by Lebanese-Australian Aheda Zanetti. By the end of the summer, the State Council, the top administrative court in France, ruled the ban unconstitutional. Nonetheless, some local municipalities contested the ruling, amidst 64% public support for the ban. [1]

As with previous bans, such as the 2010 outlawing of the face veil in public spaces, the burkini ban led to international outcry. A ‘Wear What You Want’ bikini/burkini beach party was organised outside the French Embassy in London, at which women held placards displaying slogans including ‘Islamophobia is not freedom’ and ‘Down With Islamophobia Under a Cloak of Feminism”. Activist groups across Europe and beyond, including the feminist group Femen, known for its ‘topless’ protests, also joined in to argue against the ban. Cartoons ridiculing the draconian and hypocritical nature of the ban went viral on social media; one depicted a woman standing between a supposedly Western looking man and a Muslim cleric, with the former removing her burqa to display her bikini underneath, and the latter forcibly pulling the burqa back to cover her body.

These bans have been connected by some local mayors to the recent wave of deadly attacks committed in France by groups affiliated with so-called Islamic State. On Bastille Day in Nice, a cargo truck was driven into crowds, killing over 80 people and injuring hundreds. In November last year, a series of coordinated attacks in Paris which killed 130 people and left many hundreds more injured, left the country in shock and triggered a state of emergency that is yet to be lifted. Justifications for the ban ranged from statements about the burkini being a threat to “public order”,[2] demonstrating “[dis]respect for secularism” being a “uniform of extremist Islam’”,[3] to the accusation of the garment being “unhygienic”. French Muslims’ claims that they choose to don this clothing—and Zanetti’s explanation that the burkini was designed to give Muslim women ‘freedom’—are simply dismissed by politicians and public figures, as forms of ‘false consciousness’.[4]

On 20 October, COMPAS and IMI hosted a panel discussion on the ‘burkini ban’ for the students of the MSc in Migration Studies, taught jointly by staff from both centres. The speakers[5] unpacked some of reasons that led to the ban, explored reactions from Muslim women, activists, and feminists, and discussed potential avenues for moving beyond the current rhetoric that centres on the ‘problem’ of Islam. In this blog piece we summarise and discuss their important contributions.

The burkini ban, the panellists agreed, needs to be understood first and foremost through the specificities of the French context, as John Bowen (2008) has also shown in his ethnography of ‘public reasoning’ Why the French Don’t Like The Headscarf.[6] Cohen explained in the first intervention, and drawing on a recent blog post, that the burkini ban can best be described as ‘civilizational panic’ – a variant on the established idea of a ‘moral panic’ (Stanley, 1972)[7] – a feeling that the moorings of a great civilization erected on the pillars of the Enlightenment are being undermined. Cohen argued that the tradition of Enlightenment in French intellectual history promoted reason, scepticism and doubt above blind religious faith and metaphysical speculation. It was a tradition that the French perceived themselves as exporting to the rest of the world. The burkini on French beaches, Cohen continued, served as a sign of the failure of the French ‘mission civilisatrice’, or civilising mission.

In her contribution to the debate, Perrier highlighted how the concept of ‘laïcité, or secularism, purporting a separation between religion and state, has been used to disguise Islamophobic sentiment. It has manifested itself in gendered ways, with the infantilization of Muslim women as in need of protection, and ignorant of their own oppression. The ban also resonates with colonial history, as the French had similarly outlawed the hijab in Algeria, regarding it as ‘backwards’ and antithetical to French notions of freedom and liberation. The veil, in fact, Perrier argued, emerged as a sign of contestation to colonial rule.

Perrier also sees geography as having played an important part in the ‘mediatization’ of these bans. The South of France is a place of contrasts: a site of arrival for many North African migrants, as well as a stronghold of the Front National (a far-right political party). Furthermore, the French Riviera is often romanticised as ‘quintessentially French’, associated with cinema and glamour, and with a particular notion of French femininity that runs deep in the French national imagination. The ban, Perrier argued, served as a refusal of the French to share this cherished place with its postcolonial others.

‘The fact that the war on terror should begin in a woman’s wardrobe is absurd’ Jeraj argued. The burkini, like the headscarf, has come to be seen as a threat to Republican values and national identity, rhetorically linked to concrete social problems, such as the growth of communalism, the influence of ‘Islamism’ in France, and the denigration of women (Bowen 2008). Yet this discourse has been widespread across Europe, and is tied to a larger problematisation of Islam. As elsewhere, Muslim women (particularly those wearing Muslim dress) have come to stand as visible signs of difference, of the failures of integration, assimilation, multiculturalism, and threats to liberal values, national identity, and security. Liberal, multicultural Britain can too often be celebrated as the beacon of tolerance, but as Jeraj pointed out, it too has used security as a tool for demonising and reforming its Muslim citizens, as highlighted by the recent Prevent legislation. This rhetoric has played into the hands of far-right movements, and placed the onus and responsibility for the security of the nation onto suspect communities, further marginalising and excluding them.

Absent from these debates are the voices of Muslim women themselves, who are often reduced to twin symbols of veil and victimhood. Burney introduced the views of Muslim female activists and, drawing on her PhD research on 'British Muslim Women building British Muslim lives,' she argued that issues of clothing are a distraction from Muslim women’s genuine concerns. Rather than talk about the ‘piece of cloth on their head’, Muslim women want to discuss their work, friendships, social media lives, and their concerns about a shared vision of British society. Most of the worries cannot be categorized as ‘Muslim’ per se, nor as ‘religious’, nor even ‘South-Asian’. Rather they are concerns shared by women of all backgrounds in Britain. Burney argued for a need to celebrate different ways of being feminine in Western liberal societies today, creating a hybrid third space (Bhabha 1994), composed of individuals with multiple - not conflicting - identities. These ‘in-between’ spaces exist and “provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate  new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself” (Bhabha 1994: 2).

Echoing these sentiments, Cohen concluded by arguing that France needs to look beyond a monochromatic cultural landscape and acknowledge the existence of a trichotomised France which includes a long-revered Enlightenment France, a France profonde (‘deep’ France) which survives alongside Catholicism and rural ways of being, and finally, a France métissée, or ‘blended France’, that is often overlooked and marginalised. This ‘France’ is hybridised, creolised and stands apart from the dominant and imagined universal conception of ‘what it is to be French’, which excludes people rather than includes.

There is perhaps some hope for this third space or for a more inclusive France in the growing solidarity we have witnessed between secular feminists and Muslim feminists. These two groups have, over the last few decades, stood in opposition to each other, with the former arguing in favour of the universal ‘liberation’ of women. However, there are signs that secular feminists are beginning to recognise the different voices, choices, and desires of other non-white, non-secular women. Femen’s opposition to the burkini ban, perhaps, was an indication that these feminist groups are no longer content with having their ideals of freedom hijacked by the state and employed in the demonisation and marginalisation of others. This shift offers us hope that we may begin to change policies and public perceptions on Muslims in Europe, and to think again about what it means to live with differences in contemporary European societies.

This is a joint COMPAS/IMI blog


Bhabba, Homi K. (1994) The Location of Culture, New York: Routledge

Bowen, John R. (2008) Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space, Princeton: Princeton University Press

[1] Ifop opinion poll published by “Le Figaro”: Une majorité de Français opposée au port du burkini sur les plages, 24 August, 2016

[2] Magazine Marianne: La justice confirme l'interdiction du burkini sur les plages de Cannes, 14 August, 2016

[3] Le Monde: Burkini: le maire de Cannes interdit les vêtements religieux à la plage, 12 August, 2016

[4] See France's minister of women's rights Laurence Rossignol who defended the burqini ban as well as Manuel Valls, French PM who suggested naked breasts represent France better than a headscarf.

[5] The speakers included Emeritus Professor of Development Studies Robin Cohen, former director of IMI, Dr Maud Perrier Lecturer in the Sociology of Gender and deputy director of the Gender Research Centre at the University of Bristol, Saleema F. Burney, a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), who focuses on social activism among Muslim women in Britain, and Esmet Jeraj from the Secretariat for the Citizens Commission on Islam, Participation & Public Life, and one of the organisers of the ‘Wear What You Want’ rally.

[6] Bowen argues that we need to understand the 2004 ban on the headscarf by tracing the development of French state secularism, known as laïcité, and its grounding in Republican ideas of citizenship, the historical relationship between the state, religion and the individual, the role of state institutions, the impact of the colonial past, and the role of the media in shaping public opinion.

[7] The burkini ban as a ‘civilizational panic’  by Robin Cohen, Kellogg College blog, University of Oxford, 26 September, 2016