CORALS ZHENG/THE VARSITY

Public and media outcry spread worldwide in response to the ‘burkini ban’ that has been occurring in Europe, most notably across various regions of France. Such public response began when armed police officers asked a woman to remove her burkini at the beach — an incident which was captured on video and subsequently went viral.

For those not familiar, the ‘burkini’ is a modest form of swimwear designed to cover most of the body. It was created to target a growing market of Muslim women who wish to enjoy swimming in public but not at the expense of their cultural beliefs, thereby offering an alternative to mainstream swimwear.

The concerns in response to the ban — which, when enforced, forbids women from wearing burkinis in public — have culminated in a legal challenge. In fact, France’s highest court has overturned the ban, leading to popular resort cities such as Nice and Cannes following suit with their own bans on the garment. The UN Human Rights Council went so far as to call the ban “highly discriminatory” and a “stupid reaction” that only feeds religious intolerance. The council went on to “urge all remaining local authorities which have adopted similar bans to repeal them immediately.”

Nevertheless, nationalist sentiments against the burkini have persisted — and it is these nationalist sentiments that arguably led to the ban in the first place. French authorities defended imposing such a ban by invoking popular sentiments regarding French cultural identity. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls went so far as to exclaim: “Marianne has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!” The ‘Marianne’ he invokes refers to the allegorical depiction of a woman donning the Phrygian cap, a symbol of the French Revolution.

The French Prime Minister insinuates French identity is better realized by women who bare all in public and not by women who are veiled. The premise for this argument is based on the misguided assumption that the practice of veiling is demeaning and oppressive to women. He has received backlash for his support of local bans and his comments praising Marianne’s bare breasts from the public, scholars, and even members of his own government.

Perhaps ironically, the setting for the now infamous video scene of police officers forcing a woman to disrobe is in Nice at the Promenade des Anglais — the same site at which the truck attack occurred on Bastille Day this year, during a holiday dedicated to celebrating the French Revolution.

Considering the state of European politics and overall public sentiments in response to increasing numbers of immigrants and refugees, it is clear that the ban is not an isolated incident. France is particularly keen on assimilating immigrants into its culture. In 2010, France was the first European country to publicly ban full-faced veils. Before that in 2004, the country enacted a law forbidding the wearing of religious emblems in educational settings.

It is easy to point fingers and claim that the French are being hypocrites, yet hostility towards immigrants is clearly not a phenomenon that is confined to France.

In addition, the rise of far-right parties is evident in French politics, and many of these parties have come to power by preying on the public’s fear. In the last regional election in France — which took place in December of 2015 shortly after the Paris attacks that November — the Front National (FN) led by Marine Le Pen made significant showings in the first round, topping national polls with around 28 per cent support.

This forced a coalition amongst the other parties, who resorted to strategic voting to ensure the FN’s defeat. In contrast, when Le Pen visited Québec, she was met with hostility from both the public and politicians.

It is clear that the ban has sparked debate. Yet, while sentiments echoing support or distaste for the ban are reverberating around the world, a particular group of voices is being drowned out of the conversation: the voices of the women themselves.

This is unfortunate considering how much significance the burkini holds for many Muslim women. Aheda Zanetti, the burkini’s creator, told Politico that “the burkini did wonders for Muslim women and girls. It created confidence to get active.”

Other women also expressed feelings of liberation. In an op-ed for The Guardian, Zanetti expressed the exuberant deliverance of her own experience: “It was my first time swimming in public and it was absolutely beautiful. I remember the feeling so clearly. I felt freedom, I felt empowerment, I felt like I owned the pool.”

If France is indeed concerned with the freedom and equality of its female citizens, its government ought to encourage attires like the burkini; they are small but innovative ways to ensure that all women can participate equally in public life and recreational activities, without sacrificing the values that are significant to them.

Certainly, the core of the problem lies deeper than the burkini, as Muslim women living in Europe are describing a struggle for acceptance and peace in their daily lives. Since the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, many feel as though anti-Muslim bias has intensified, describing “dirty looks and threatening remarks,” as reported by The New York Times.

On the surface, protests of the ban have taken various forms. TIME reported that support from non-Muslim groups translated into a growth in burkini sales. Skin cancer survivors represent a significant portion of the burkini’s supporters. Would a melanoma patient be asked to remove their swimwear in order to enforce the burkini ban, or are such tactics limited only to women who are Muslim? From a civil liberty standpoint, no government should ever dictate what its citizens can or cannot wear.

It is easy to point fingers and claim that the French are being hypocrites, yet hostility towards immigrants is clearly not a phenomenon that is confined to France. Some may see the influx of immigrants as a threat to the way of life they have established at home.

To draw a parallel, Donald Trump proposes policies in the United States that include building a wall to keep Mexicans out and patrolling Muslim neighbourhoods.

Closer to home, in British Columbia, a foreign buyer’s tax was introduced in response to growing resentment against wealthy Chinese buyers inflating the housing market.

There is no easy solution to cross-cultural prejudice­ — banning religious or cultural symbols and demonizing entire groups of the population will only inflame the issue. What we need instead is dialogue and understanding.

Therefore, we must go beyond simply criticizing the flawed logic behind an ideology or policy like the burkini ban, and instead, take steps towards coherently communicating our differences, in the aim of resolving such conflicts in a productive manner.

Luke Jeagal is a third-year student at University College studying Physiology and Political Science.

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