LONDON – There has been a lot of fuss lately about the handful of Muslim women who choose to bathe on French beaches wearing a special garment that covers the head (not the face), and much of the body. That garment – the so-called burkini – was invented in 2004 by an Australian-Lebanese woman named Aheda Zanetti, with the goal of enabling even the strictest Muslim women to swim or play sports in public. Little did Zanetti know that her creation would generate a national controversy.
The imbroglio started when mayors in several southern French seaside towns banned burkinis on their beaches. A grotesque photograph soon appeared in newspapers around the world of three armed French policemen forcing a woman to undress on a beach in Nice. Though the ban has now been invalidated by France’s highest court, it is still enforced in several seaside resorts.
And, indeed, the controversy is far from over. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is now running for a new term, recently called the burkini a “provocation,” while Lionnel Luca, the mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet, spoke of “rampant Islamization.” The equally outraged Prime Minister Manuel Valls has called bare breasts a symbol of French republican liberty. After all, he concluded, wasn’t Marianne, the female symbol of the French Republic, usually depicted with her breasts exposed?
There is little doubt that Sarkozy’s opposition to the burkini is entirely opportunistic. The controversy represents yet another opportunity to stoke prejudice against an unpopular minority, in the hope of siphoning votes from the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the 2017 election. But, in a tradition that spans centuries of European missionary zeal, his opportunism has been cloaked in moral terms: “We don’t imprison women behind fabric.”