Reversing the ban on the wearing of burkinis — full-body wet suits worn by Muslim women — France’s highest court Friday favored personal liberty and restored the right for women to make their own clothing choices. In this case, their beachwear.
France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim community and it breathed a sigh of relief with this favorable ruling. In a nation where attacks by ISIS-inspired terrorists over the past 18 months have placed the country on edge many Muslims have felt the brunt of discrimination and were often made to be on the defensive in public life.
Mayors in coastal towns along the French Riviera recently placed a ban on Muslim women wearing modesty-conforming swimwear called burkinis. The mayors claimed that this form of Islamic dress vindicated the viewpoint of Muslim terrorists and religious extremists and thus was antithetical to French norms.
Images of Muslim women being undressed under duress by police on Riviera beaches went viral and inflamed sentiments of religious and secular communities as well as human rights groups worldwide . What next, many asked? Will they ask Catholic nuns to wear revealing swimwear when they took a dip?
In the view of many of France’s Muslims the action of nearly two dozen mayors, vocally supported by leading French politicians, was nothing but a veiled act of anti-Islamic discrimination and Islamophobia that the court rightfully struck down.
Still, the matter might not end here. Anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe is running high and the French government might pursue other avenues to outlaw burkinis as beach clothing just as they outlawed wearing face covering in public.
Muslim women’s dress has become one of the more defining aspects of Islamic identity in Europe and the world over. Many devout Muslim women loath that their identities can be reduced to a piece of cloth wrapped on their heads.
In a polarized environment, with Islamophobia at one end and defensiveness by Muslim communities on the other, an open and sensible debate on veiling and other aspects of Muslim life remains controversial.
In terms of Muslim theology there are serious differences of opinion and ambiguity about the standard for women’s dress. However, the hijab, head-covering, has become the default norm. Muslim feminists, including the late Moroccan sociologist and writer on Islam, Fatima Mernissi (among many others) have challenged the more conservative perspective.
Ebrahim Moosa is Professor of Islamic Studies, Keough School of Global Affairs, University of Notre Dame and author of What is a Madrasa? and co-editor Islam and the Modern World.