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From Burqa to Burkini – No Dress for Women – No Country for Women

We open our eyes in an era today where men and women are paid if they shed their clothes off, while they are penalized for covering their bodies. Those who once blamed the men for oppressing and dictating to women, are today themselves dictating to women what they should cover and what they should uncover of their bodies.

From certain extremists of tribal-regional India, and certain West Asian countries where women aren’t allowed to even come out of their house, not allowed to drive, to some of Europe’s so-called advanced nations where the Government forces women to uncover, women are being deliberately  exploited by the extremists from each side of the ring.

There are certain moral, social and ethical codes of conduct for dressing which are applicable by implication of the situation, place and person, thereby causing eyebrows to rise when the French Government restricts the freedom to cover your bodies, under certain defined rules.

Laïcité – is the term under the pretext of which the French government is trying to ban the burkini.

Laïcité, which defines French secularity, is the “absence of religious involvement in government affairs”, especially the prohibition of religious influence in determination of state policies. It acts as a tool for the government to ban religious symbols and clothing which includes crosses, kippah (the jewish skullcap), and Islamic headscarves.

The story dates back to 2004, when the first of its kind ban was imposed banning Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols in state schools. The law, which forbids “signs and dress that conspicuously show the religious affiliation of students” received criticism from all over the world including human rights organisations. The impact of ban which was phrased in neutral terms had actually fallen disproportionately on Muslim girls at that time, and thus contradicted the anti-discrimination provisions of International Human Rights law.


A 2004 protest by the French against Governmen’t decision to ban headscarves. Source

Then, reacting at the law executive direction, the Human Rights Watch said The proposed law is an unwarranted infringement on the right to religious practice. For many Muslims, wearing a headscarf is not only about religious expression, it is about religious obligation.

Despite continuous criticism within the country, from several European rights groups, and from all over the world, France extended the ban from headscarves of students to the burqa and other Islamic face coverings in public spaces that came into effect on April 2011. Defending the ban, then French Prime Minister Francois Fillion  said, “The French Republic lives in a bare-headed fashion”.

Further, The French Constitutional Council added that the law does not impose disproportionate punishments or prevent the free exercise of religion in a place of worship, finding therefore that “the law conforms to the Constitution.”

As we stepped in 2016, the ban-game took a new turn with the government’s effort to ban the burkini – a full-body swimsuit for women that is designed to be “in line with Islamic values”. As of this summer, the ban was extended to 15 French towns, Including Cannes and Nice. Worldwide anger and protest forced France’s top administrative court to overturn the burkini ban on August 26.

French agency AFP saw a ticket given to the woman by police, which said she was not ‘wearing an outfit respecting good morals and secularism’. Photograph: Vantagenews.com

A ticket being given to a woman by the police mentioned that she was not ‘wearing an outfit respecting good morals and secularism’, reported the French AFP. Photograph: Vantagenews.com

Aheda Zanetii, a Lebanese-Australian designer who invented burqini told Politico that the ban is “Just hatred” toward Muslims.

She further added, I created [burkinis] to stop Muslim children from missing out on swimming lessons and sports activities,” she said. “I hope the French prime minister and the mayors see that they should find out how to combine communities, how to work around issues, instead of harming the community, taking the beach away from some people and punishing them. Thats just hatred.”

There should be a clear distinction between “allowing free religious practice”, and “religious affiliation of the Governmental Offices”. Please take note of these two very different yet misinterpreted terminologies used by the media. As per rational standards of Justice and Rights of an individual to freely practice one’s faith, an individual must be free to do so as long as it does not interfere with the freedom of another person. Whereas the call to prohibit the “religious affiliation” of students, government servants, and the government itself, is not wrong as far as it is interpreted as the absence of religious influence or ideas in the functioning of the Universities, and Government Offices. It is wrong to interpret the “absence of religious affiliation” in a way to prohibit individuals from using clothing which may be a part of their religious obligation.

The court in Nice while imposing the ban stated, “The wearing of distinctive clothing, other than that usually worn for swimming, can indeed only be interpreted in this context as a straightforward symbol of religiosity,” which yet again questions the rationality of this verdict which contradicts the right of an individual to practice one’s religion.

France’s approach to keep religion out of political policies is much stronger than other European countries or the United States. However, it is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe: an estimated 5 to 6 million that constitutes of around 8 percent of the total population. These continuous efforts by the Government with policies like burkini-ban and systematic anti-muslim discrimination are the factors which are limiting a community’s women’s ability to integrate in society, thus resulting in alienation, further division and social inequality. It is a direct dictation to women of a community to uncover what they wish to cover of their bodies.

It brings us to a very wide platform of academic and philosophical debate, such that when an individual forces a woman to uncover, it is considered as a crime, but when the Government imposes a Law forcing women to uncover their body, the matter has to be petitioned and fought in the court of law to win the right to cover her own body as she wishes.

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