PARIS — Before Wendy bought her first burkini this summer, the 22-year-old French Muslim convert would dress up in leggings, a tennis skirt and a T-shirt to enjoy days at the beach.
“I usually wear a normal headscarf, I don’t hide my face. I don’t see why I should wear a bikini when I am on holiday, it makes no sense,” she told AFP in a telephone interview.
The law student from the northern city of Lille is one of several Muslim women who say they feel further stigmatised by a ban on the full-body swimsuit on some French beaches.
The action has created a furore in the fiercely secular nation which has been hit by a string of jihadist attacks.
France’s highest administrative court, the State Council, will on Thursday examine a request by the Human Rights League (LDH) to scrap the ban, enforced on some 15 beaches in the country.
Lower courts have supported the decision by French mayors, with a tribunal in the Riviera city of Nice — where a crowd was mowed down in July in a grisly truck attack — said the burkini could “be felt as a defiance or a provocation exacerbating tensions felt by” the community.
The swimsuit — much like a wetsuit but with a head covering — was designed by Australian Aheda Zanetti and has grown in popularity in recent years. The designer told AFP this week that many orders are from non-Muslims, including survivors of skin cancer.
‘I just want to swim in peace’
While some French see the outfit as a glaring display of religious convictions — which goes against cherished values separating religion and public life — those who wear it see it as a matter of practicality.
“I didn’t want to go into the water with clothes on, it would damage them,” laughed Wendy. “I just want to swim in peace.”
Wendy described as “ridiculous” the debate which has further polarized France as it struggles to contain rising Islamophobia that has resulted from the string of terror attacks.
The burkini ban has also created confusion: is it the trademarked swimsuit itself that is the problem, or merely being fully clothed on the seashore? In France, which counts a population of five million Muslims, burkinis are extremely rare and only a minority of Muslim women remain covered on beaches.
A mother of two told AFP on Tuesday she had been fined on the beach in the resort of Cannes for wearing leggings, a tunic and a headscarf.
Her ticket, seen by AFP, read that she was not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”.
“I was sitting on a beach with my family. I was wearing a classic headscarf. I had no intention of swimming,” said the 34-year-old who gave only her first name, Siam.
A witness to the scene, journalist Mathilde Cusin, confirmed the incident. “The saddest thing was that people were shouting ‘go home’, some were applauding the police. Her daughter was crying,” she said.
‘Problems for nothing’
France was the first European country to ban the Islamic face veil in public in 2010, six years after outlawing the headscarf and other conspicuous religious symbols in state schools.
However ordinary citizens are allowed to wear the headscarf in public.
Lamia, a friend of Wendy’s who did not give her last name, grew up in the northern French coastal town of Dunkerque.
She remembers going to the sea as a child, with her mother dressed in a long black dress.
“It would stay wet, and get full of sand. The burkini merely makes it easier for Muslims who have always swum fully clothed,” she said.
Lamia said she was angry at an “opportunistic” debate which would “create problems for nothing. Fundamentalists, extremists, think the beach is for infidels. They will not go and swim on the Cannes beach surrounded by topless women,” she said.
Lamia said those who wear the burkini are “free in their choices and just want to enjoy their holidays”.
However she believes the name of the swimsuit should be changed as “it has a derogatory connotation because of the burqa”, the full-face veil.
Tatiana, a saleswoman in an Islamic fashion store in Paris, also disapproves of the name of the outfit.
She said most of her clients were “mothers, who just want to play in the water with their children”.