French Muslim women wear burkinis at swimming pool in protest



For some Muslim women in France, it is virtually impossible to swim in a public pool and stay true to their beliefs.

Many remain covered as part of their faith with clothing such as hijabs, which cover the head, and burqas, which cover the entire body. So they can’t just put on a bikini or even a one-piece swimsuit when going to the pool.

Some women wear “burkinis”, bathing suits that keep them covered while they swim, leaving their hands, feet and face bare. But many cities across France have banned them.

To protest the bans, Muslim women from Alliance Citoyenne, a group in Grenoble that advocates for social issues, began swimming in wetsuits last month as an act of civil disobedience.

Citizen Alliance said its campaign is inspired by the actions of black Americans during the civil rights movement, particularly the use of civil disobedience such as the Montgomery bus boycott.

Seven women have been to a swimming pool in Grenoble once last month and once this week. The group is planning similar protests every Sunday until the rule is changed, said chief organizer of the Alliance Citoyenne, Adrien Roux.

“Civil disobedience of Muslim women in Grenoble for public swimming pools that respect freedom of conscience,” the group said in a tweet.

Matthieu Chamussy, a member of the center-right Republican Party, criticized the action on Twitter and asked the mayor of Grenoble what he was doing about it. “New intrusion into the swimsuit coating in Grenoble,” he said in a tweet. “The city’s regulations are no longer applied, political Islam is advancing step by step, the cause of women is receding.”

The mayor of Grenoble, Eric Piolle, then tweeted: “When it comes to equal access to a public service, the role of the state is to lay down clear and fair rules for all. National solidarity is at stake. Referring to ‘individual dialogue’, the resolution of tensions in the territories is ambiguous and feeds the fractures.

Muslim women in France often have difficulty accessing public services because of their hijab and cannot even accompany their children to school, Roux said.

This year, the French Senate voted to ban religious symbols during school trips, essentially prohibiting mothers wearing headscarves from attending. And now that it’s summer, the kids want to go swimming – but they can’t unless a parent is with them, Roux said. If their mothers are Muslim and wear the hijab, they cannot go.

“So they must deny their religious beliefs and leave, or not deny and not leave,” he said.

Roux compared staying covered in a swimming pool to Rosa Parks being able to ride in the front of the Montgomery bus. And he said it wasn’t just about swimming pools.

“The big question is access to public jobs, to certain jobs that are denied to them” because of religious symbols, he said. “Many cannot be teachers in France and in other professions. That’s why it’s important to them.

A January study by researchers at Stanford University found that France’s 2004 ban on hijabs, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses in public schools had a negative impact on Muslim girls.

Specifically, it reduced their chances of completing high school and affected their ability to be successful in the long term in the job market. Additionally, researchers argued that the ban reduced assimilation by “branding religion and national identities as incompatible.”

Veiled women are often turned away from places not covered by the ban, Roux said. Members of the Citizen Alliance who were veiled once tried to go bowling but were told they could not enter.

“It’s illegal, but it happens anyway,” he said.

Roux said other pool goers generally received the women positively and some people in Grenoble applauded when they arrived in Burkinis.

But when the women exited the pool, two police buses were waiting for them, Roux said. The women were fined for their actions this month.

The next day, Roux said, the group received racist comments on Facebook, from people saying they did not want Muslim women in France.

Two women who spoke to the media even received threats in their mailboxes, Roux said.

“Why this makes a big mess, why these national leaders feel the need to comment on these seven women who went swimming, it’s crazy,” said Roux.

France rigorously applies secularism. Religious symbols are not allowed in any public space, such as public schools. Even lawmakers are not allowed to wear religious symbols.

Laïcité, “laïcité” in French, is deeply rooted in French culture.

Its roots can be found in the French Revolution, when the people rose up against the monarchy and the wealthy, including the Catholic clergy. The separation of church and state was enacted in 1905 – almost 100 years after the Revolution.

It is also a question of allegiance. Many believe that the French identity is the primary identity of a person and that nothing precedes it.

During the 2018 World Cup, comedian and television host Trevor Noah was criticized by the French ambassador to the United States after suggesting that the France team, most of whom had African heritage, were African and not just French.

When Muslim women settle in France, many think they are now French and must adopt French customs. And that means leaving the hijab or other blankets at home.

In 2011, France banned burqas and niqabs, which cover the face, in public spaces. Lawmakers who supported the law, including then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, said the clothing threatened French secularism and debased women.

In 2016, cities across the country banned the burkini. Authorities said the bans were a response to terrorism concerns after a man plowed a 20-ton truck on a busy street in Nice, killing 84 people. Although France’s highest administrative court later ruled that mayors cannot ban Burkinis, many cities continue to ban swimsuits.

In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban on the burqa and niqab in France after two French women were convicted in 2012 for wearing the niqab. Four years later, the United Nations Human Rights Committee said the ban violated the human rights of Muslim women and risked “confining them to their homes.”


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