Swimsuit season is coming to an end, but the burkini debate continues to rage on in France and around the world. Over 30 French municipalities have adopted bans on the burkini, a full-body swimsuit that resembles a standard wetsuit and is used by some Muslim beachgoers in place of hijabs or other forms of the veil. Political proponents of the burkini-ban defend their position by citing the traditional French principle of laïcité, or state-sanctioned secularism. Laïcité has been a cornerstone of the French Republic since the Revolution, but it has recently been described by critics as a “spear in xenophobic, Islamophobic and sexist battles.” Laïcité originated with the purpose of enforcing secular education, but today, it is being used by towns “fighting for the ‘Soul of France’” to force Muslim beachgoers to remove their burkinis. Traditional French secularism has lost its roots and must be revised instead of continuing to be exploited for partisan ends.
Laïcité was a concept implemented over a century ago during the French Revolution, representing a victory against the powerful Roman Catholic Church. It was the backbone policy of a 1905 law that limited the power of the church and outlined three terms: separation of church and state, freedom of conscience and freedom to exercise any faith. The 1905 law banned religious teaching and affiliation from state schools and universities, instead making education about the principles of the Enlightenment and the French Republic.
However, modern day France no longer has to contend with the Roman Catholic Church. Today, secularism in France has become an attempt at brokering ethnic differences in society, often provoking accusations of bias and xenophobia. France has passed two laws banning the Muslim veil — one in 2004, which banned veils in public settings, and the other in 2011, which banned full face veils with risk of a fine. The laws were passed in conjunction with mainstream French politicians advocating for measures preventing veiled women from access to institutions and community privileges. Veiled women are rejected by employers, barred from school property and class trips, routinely searched by major stores and are targets of verbal abuse and even physical violence. Everything was done in the name of protecting France’s commitment to secularity and laïcité.
Laïcité clashes with the realities of modern day France and its growing Muslim community and is increasingly being used to infringe upon the rights of Muslim citizens rather than what it was actually intended for — to separate church and state. The burkini ban is the latest development in that trend. A burkini ban is senseless, unconstitutional and should not continue be upheld by a misinformed principle based on racial paranoia. If it continues, the French national motto, “liberté, égalité, fraternité” will begin to lose its meaning.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, September 12 print edition. Email Aparna Alankar at [email protected]