The burkini is not a burka for the beach, and French bans had nothing to do with security

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWHAT’S in a name? When Aheda Zanetti, creator of the burkini, was ready to take her design to market, she needed something catchy, quickly. A word that would stick in the mind, become a proprietary eponym even, but also convey a sense of fun. So she reached for the standby of all modern marketeers: the portmanteau.

“Heading off an a staycation? Don’t forget your burkini!” “Shy about your ‘beach body’? Chillax, a burkini’s got you covered”. It was the perfect mash-up of words and concepts: business (Islam) in the front, party (swimming) in the back.

I wonder if she regrets it now. I don’t wish to suggest that French authorities are in the grip of an Emperor’s New Clothes-style mass delusion, but it does feel necessary to point out that a burkini is not, in fact, a burka tweaked for the beach. It is not a burka in any sense. It is a swimming costume with a hood. That’s it. Not a symbol of sympathy for terrorists, not a gesture of defiance against France’s secular principles or “laïcité” – just a swimming costume with a hood.

A burkini is not, in fact, a burka tweaked for the beach. It is not a burka in any sense.

An actual burka for the beach would be a dangerous garment indeed, putting the wearer at risk of a kind of self-inflicted waterboarding. By contrast, no-one’s safety is threatened by the wearing of a burkini. If anything, it’s the safest swimwear going, protecting from the sun’s rays far more effectively than some washed-off Factor 50.

What the leaders of French seaside towns are doing, by introducing preposterous and outrageous burkini bans in the wake of the Nice terror attack, is confirming widely held suspicions about the motives behind previous prohibitions. Officially, the burka (full head-and-body-covering garment) and the niqab (face-covering veil) were banned in public places not due to their religious significance, but because they prevented identification. By law, these coverings are treated no differently from balaclavas, masks or crash helmets (when worn by people who aren’t on motorbikes). Gimp suits and zentai (a Japanese portmanteau that translates as “full-body tights”) are also prohibited.

This isn’t using a sledgehammer to crack a nut – it’s using one to tap the top off a soft-boiled egg

But while there’s no mention of Islam or any other religion in the burka-ban legislation introduced in 2011, the then president Nicolas Sarkozy made it clear that its primary purpose was to prevent women from being forced to cover their faces. Those wearing a face cover risk a €150 fine or equivalent community service, but the punishment for compelling someone else to cover up is up to €30,000 plus a spell in prison. This isn’t using a sledgehammer to crack a nut – it’s using one to tap the top off a soft-boiled egg. For any domineering man determined to control a woman, the workaround is obvious: keep her indoors.

When the ban was introduced the government issued guidelines for its enforcement, apparently sensitive to the risk that it would inflame tensions rather than protect or empower women. These guidelines stated that police should use “tact and sensitivity”, persuade women to identify themselves rather than force them to do so, and on no account compel anyone to remove a burka or niqab in public.

But here were are, five years on, with armed police forcing a woman to undress on the beach. A woman whose face was not even obscured, let alone covered, when the officers surrounded her and arbitrarily forced her to remove a long-sleeved top.“Get ’em off!” was the condemnatory headline in the Daily Mail: you know a line’s been crossed when the Daily Mail takes time out from assessing the “pert posteriors” of minor television celebrities to suggest a Muslim woman has been treated unjustly.

The pictures quickly circulated around the world and were greeted with near-unanimous horror – except, one presumes, in strongholds of the terror group Daesh, which wholeheartedly endorses the policing of women’s dress and behaviour and has now managed to spread fear and mistrust in a country that prides itself on liberté, égalité and fraternité. That’s quite an achievement.

Two years ago the European Court of Human Rights threw out a challenge to France’s head-covering ban, rejecting the suggestion that it interfered with the rights to private life, freedom of thought and religion, or freedom from discrimination. It’s hard to imagine the so-called burkini ban standing up to the same scrutiny. The ban doesn’t refer to Aheda Zanetti’s burqini™, but to “full-body swimsuits”, and in practice it appears the police are interpreting this to mean anything that covers the limbs of a woman on the beach who looks a bit Muslim.

There is no security argument here, no community cohesion argument except in reverse

There is no security argument here, no community cohesion argument except in reverse. Personally, I’d cross the street to avoid someone wearing a burka, gimp mask or clown costume, and have been known to jump out of my skin when unexpectedly encountering a niqab-wearing neighbour in my close. My fear isn’t about what any of these garments represent – I’ve no way of knowing for sure what they mean to the wearers – I’m just very easy spooked by anyone who attempts to conceal their face. Mimes, ninjas and The Stig from Top Gear would fall into the same heebie-jeebie-generating category. However, none of these sights would give me more of a chill than being roused from an afternoon nap by an armed policeman demanding that I remove my clothes. France needs to wake up, before it’s too late.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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