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Burkini Memo to French Mayors: Would You Also Ban My Aunts for Being Nuns?

By Colin Randall @salutsunderland

Burkini memo to French mayors: would you also ban my aunts for being nuns?

Maybe this is taking it a step too far. But then, several mayors and a prime minister I have hitherto respected, Manuel Valls, seem determined to make France a laughing stock. Let us be blunt: banning the burkini, burqini or body-covering swimsuit from French beaches, because it makes the wearer look like a terrorist or is somehow unhygienic, is on any analysis stupid. That is without even considering the Corsican louts who attack Muslims on the beach because of how they are dressed. They are just that, louts.

We must all be vigilant in troubled times, but is it strictly necessary, in the war on terror from within, to invent provocation? And here's a thing: I wonder how two of my late aunts, both nuns, might have fared in modern-day, intolerant France. One was a Protestant, the other a Catholic - would the latter have been treated in the street as if her appearance implied support for the Inquisition? ...

MARSEILLE // A French-Algerian entrepreneur and activist says he is prepared to pay the fine for any woman prosecuted for contravening French laws banning the burqini.

In his mission to defend what he calls a "fundamental democratic right", Rachid Nekkaz has struck the latest blow in what has become the battle of the beachwear.

It began with an arguably manufactured row over plans for a private pool party for Muslim women and has grown into what Mr Nekkaz says is a "dangerous cocktail" of intolerance and paranoia.

Mayors in several holiday locations have banned the wearing of full-bodied swim suits known as "burqinis", prompting fierce debate that threatens to make France’s unending struggle for social harmony tougher still.

David Lisnard, the mayor of one Riviera resort, Cannes, is under pressure to withdraw a comment, reported by a local newspaper on Thursday last week, that the burqini is "a uniform that is a symbol of Islamist extremism".

With those words, he deepened suspicion among some observers that certain French political figures are allowing understandable anxiety about terrorism to inspire irrational or oppressive responses.

But on Wednesday Mr Lisnard’s position was given a boost when France’s socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, said that he too supports the bans.

In an interview with La Provence newspaper, Mr Valls insisted the swimwear represented a "provocation" and an "archaic vision" that women are "immodest, impure and that they should therefore be totally covered."

"That is not compatible with the values of France," he added.

Disquiet at the preference of Muslim women for modesty on the beach has led to bans on the burqini not only in Cannes but in the nearby resort of Villeneuve-Loubet and the coastal village of Sisco on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, where violent clashes broke out on Sunday. The trouble apparently started when a young man started taking photographs of women in two family groups, though the full circumstances are unclear.

The present controversy over burqinis began earlier this month with hostile reaction to plans for a private pool party for Muslim women at the Speed Water Park in Pennes-Mirabeau, near Marseille.

Although the water park owners said only an inquiry was made, not a firm booking, they finally agreed with the mayor, Michel Amiel, not to allow the event. The organisers had received abuse and death threats on social media.

Mr Amiel said he utterly condemned such reactions as "completely outrageous, Islamophobic, xenophobic, racist" but insisted that "given the circumstances, appeasement was necessary".

Mr Nekkaz, the founder of Touches Pas a Ma Constitution (Hands Off My Constitution), a group he formed to defend the civil rights of Muslim women, said he would pay the fines of any woman prosecuted for breaching the bans.

He has already covered fines totalling €245,000 imposed on 1,400 women for breaking a law enacted in France, and to a lesser extent in neighbouring countries, to outlaw the face-covering veil in public. He personally dislikes the niqab but regards the right to wear it absolute.

"France is a playing a very dangerous game, exploiting the fears of the population just as the country approaches election year," said Mr Nekkaz [who now tells me he definitively renounced French citizenship in 2013 and is purely Algerian, despite his Parisian birth]. "While I fought against the law on the veil, even that prohibited only headwear where the face was not visible and this is simply not the case with burqinis.

"This is very unfortunate for France and the mixture of emotions leading to the bans is a dangerous, even explosive cocktail," he added. "We no longer have intellectuals and statesmen, just demagogues."

Mr Nekkaz, who has previously given evidence in Sudan to help save a woman from a flogging for wearing trousers, said bans on burqinis were an affront to the right of some Muslims to wear the clothing of their choice.

"It is therefore a violation of a fundamental democratic right," he added.

French support for such bans comes from both the mainstream left and right and is based on passionate attachment to a secular society enshrined in law. But elsewhere in Europe, the actions have been ridiculed – as well as criticised as harmful to community relations.

Several commentators have pointed out that the British celebrity chef Nigella Lawson wore a burqini on an Australian beach in 2011. She later explained that her then husband, the art collector Charles Saatchi, did not like her to get a tan.

Remona Aly, the director of communications for Britain’s Exploring Islam Foundation, mocked the bans in an online article for The Guardian newspaper citing "five good reasons for wearing the burqini – and not just to annoy the French". She listed chances to "launch a media frenzy", save on sun cream, diversify debate on feminism, "highlight the ridiculous" and celebrate freedom.,

"So many people are sick and tired of this worn-out debate over an innocuous piece of swimwear," she told me.

"The burqini is getting more and more politically loaded through bans of this kind, and it’s so sad to see that just because some women feel more comfortable in a certain type of swimwear, that they might be looked at with suspicion, fear and hostility.

"This is not healthy for society. If we allow bans like this to continue, it is playing into the hands of extremists who want to tear apart our societies and our freedoms. It is up to the citizens of France to challenge the ban, which they are doing, as an infringement on civil liberties."

Ms Aly added that associating the burqini with extremism was "one of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard".

"The mayor is saying that if a French Muslim mum, or Nadiya Hussein (a Muslim mother who won last year’s Great British Bake Off award) or Nigella Lawson for that matter, go to the beach in a burqini, we are all extremists?" she said.

"It’s absurd and so dangerous for a local leader to make these discriminatory assertions as he is contributing to a climate of paranoia and division."

* My articles for The National, Abu Dhabi, are reproduced here with the editor's consent.

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