Plan to allow burkinis in Grenoble swimming pools reignites French culture wars



The Burkinis have long been a catalyst for conflict in France, challenging societal attitudes towards Islam and feminism. Rule changes at Grenoble’s swimming pools suggest opposition to clothing may recede.

As the summer timetables for municipal swimming pools are coming soon, the town hall of Grenoble will vote on May 16 on possible changes to the rules relating to swimsuits.

So far so ordinary. It is not uncommon for French swimming pools to enact strict regulations in terms of swimsuits; in most, bathing caps and form-fitting lycra outfits are a must. But in Grenoble, Mayor Éric Piolle wants to make the rules more permissive, especially for swimmers.

“Our wish is to get rid of absurd restrictions,” he said. “This includes [allowing] topless and bathing suits that provide extra coverage for sun protection or for beliefs. It’s not about taking a stand for or against the burkini specifically,” he said.

The burkini is a swimsuit that covers the whole body, including the head, leaving only the face, hands and feet visible. The planned change in Grenoble comes after protests in the city that began in 2018. In 2020 and 2021, a group of activists from the grassroots community association Alliance Citoyenne demonstrated wearing burkinis in swimming pools in Grenoble.

One of them was Taous, a Muslim who lives in Grenoble and wears the hijab. “I love the feeling of being in the water, but these protests were the first time I was able to set foot in a swimming pool in France,” she said. When his children go to the swimming pool, Taous looks at them rather than swimming with them.

She is adamant that the rules should change not just to allow burkinis, but to allow more choice for all women. “The rules are not specifically about burkinis,” she said. “They also plan to allow women to show their breasts if they wish. It’s really about feminism and letting women wear whatever they want. I believe in every woman’s right to choose.

“Submit to Islam”

Nonetheless, it is the possibility of burkinis, in particular, being allowed in swimming pools that has sparked debate in France.

The burkini was invented by Australian Aheda Zanetti, who put her model on the market in 2004 “The idea was to make a swimsuit for Muslim women and girls, or for someone who wanted to dress modestly,” she told FRANCE 24. “I could see there was a market. There was nothing satisfying for women and girls who wanted to do water sports.

She hoped her design would lead to greater inclusion for Muslim women and others who didn’t feel comfortable in smaller swimsuits, but in France the garment has become a longtime catalyst for conflicts.

In Grenoble, local elected officials were quick to counter the mayor’s plans to allow burkinis in swimming pools. In May, the president of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, Laurent Wauquiez, accused the mayor of “submitting to Islamism” and threatened to cut subsidies to the municipality if the measure was passed.

Dozens of local officials have also signed calls to overturn City Hall’s vote on the measure, which they say was ‘imposed by minority groups for the sole purpose of continuously testing the sensitivity of our institutions to religious symbols. “.

At the heart of the debate, France secularism (or laïcité) laws that strictly separate church and state and give French authorities the power to ban religious symbols in public places.

Such laws are common: in 2004, a law banned the wearing of religious emblems in schools and colleges. But in recent years, accusations have mounted that France is using the law to disproportionately target its Muslim population.

In 2010, France became the first European country to ban the full veil in public places. Today, the French Football Federation bans female players from wearing hijabs (scarves that cover the hair) even though international football governing body FIFA does not.

>> Muslim women footballers clash with French government over hijab ban in sport

“Shameful and Absurd”

The spike in anxiety over the wearing of the burkini in France came following two large-scale attacks on French soil, carried out by Muslim extremists. In November 2015, in Paris, coordinated attacks in bars, restaurants and a concert hall killed 137 people. Seven months later, in July 2016, a truck driver deliberately rammed into a crowd celebrating July 14 on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, killing 86 people.

In a climate of heightened fear and distrust of the Muslim community, the mayors of some thirty cities in France mobilized laws on secularism to ban the wearing of the burkini on the beaches in the summer of 2016 with fines of up to €38 for offenders.

The French Prime Minister at the time, Manuel Valls, came out in favor of the local mayors, describing the burkini as “an expression of a political project, of a counter-society, based in particular on the enslavement of women. “.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch called the ban “shameful and absurd”, and footage taken in August 2016 of police in Nice surrounding a woman at the beach with her children and demanding that she remove her burkini sparked outcry international.

“The only women excluded from the beaches are veiled Muslims,” ​​Hanane Karimi, a sociology doctor at the University of Strasbourg and a feminist, told FRANCE 24. “It’s segregation based on religious beliefs. It creates borders based on identity and reinforces racist discourse.

‘Wear what you want!’

Later in August 2016, the French government statutory regulator The state Council rejected the right of local governments to ban burkinis, and in September Nice and other beaches lifted their burkini bans.

Nevertheless, the burkini is still considered controversial by some. In May 2022, a survey by the right-wing French news channel Cnews found that 73% of French people would prefer burkinis to be banned in swimming pools.

This is largely because they are considered a religious symbol rather than a swimsuit. “I get women, often older women, who come to me asking if they can also wear burkinis because they don’t want to show their bodies,” says Taous. “I say, of course you can. They are available for everyone to buy. You don’t have to be a Muslim. »

Meanwhile, support for burkini wearers has quietly grown. In 2018, a change in regulations in the municipal swimming pools of Rennes authorized the wearing of the burkini.

In light of Grenoble’s proposed rule changes, more than 100 high-profile feminist organizations, and feminists such as Caroline De Haas and Alice Coffin, have publicly supported an open letter written by Alliance Citoyenne titled “In May, wear what you want!”

Citizens’ Alliance protesters have been fined by police for wearing burkinis to the pool in 2020 and 2021, but are happy to see local authorities change their stance. “We are hopeful that things could change in Grenoble on Monday,” Taous said. ” We’re wishing for the best. And if they can change in Grenoble, they can also change elsewhere in France.

Whatever the outcome of Monday’s vote, the outcome looks set to cause a stir. Demonstrations for and against the burkini are planned in front of the building of the municipal council of Grenoble.

As the debate rages, Mayor Piolle has tried to ease tensions. “In Grenoble, we are planning a change in swimming pool regulations to guarantee equal access to public services and the freedom to dress or undress,” he said. in a tweet. “The burkini is a non-subject.”

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