France’s “Muslim Rosa Parks” are reviving the debate over burkinis

The sun is back—and so is the burkini debate.
The sun is back—and so is the burkini debate.
Image: AP Photo
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Temperatures are running high in France. So are tempers.

Last week, France experienced its worst heatwave in more than 15 years. Public swimming pools were kept busy trying to cool people down, offering an escape from sizzling temperatures with extended hours. At the same time, they became the site of a heated controversy, reviving a debate about secularism that comes up with the regularity of a Swiss clock in France.

On June 23, a group of activists called Alliance Citoyenne, or “Citizens Alliance,” entered a public pool in the southern city of Grenoble (some links in French), flanked by French reporters invited to cover the event, and wearing burkinis. The group says it “fights against all injustices” at the community level, including through non-violent protests and discussions with elected officials.

The activists were protesting restrictions on the Islamic full-body swimsuit, which is forbidden in many public pools. They were reportedly fined €35 ($40) each by police for violating municipal rules, and plan to protest again, says Citizens Alliance leader Elies. He asked that his last name be withheld because he says he has received online threats since last week’s protest in Grenoble.

On Facebook, the protesters call themselves the “Muslim Rosa Parks,” saying they were inspired by the activist’s tactics of civil disobedience during the US civil rights movement. Some called the comparison “outrageous” in editorials and on social media.

This controversy illustrates some of the most uncomfortable and persistently polarizing questions facing French people: What compromises can reasonably be asked of religious minorities in the name of secularism? And where does the defense of gender equality and religious neutrality end, and discrimination begin? 

Are burkinis banned in France?

The principle of laïcité, or secularism, has been enshrined in French law and political practice since 1905. It was prompted by decades of tensions between the French Republic and the Catholic Church, and aimed to ensure that religion would never again supersede the government.

In 2004, the country enforced this principle of religious neutrality by banning veils and other religious signs deemed “ostentatious” in schools and other public places. The ban, which is supported by a majority of French citizens, argued that all children should be able to have a national identity free of the constraints of religion. Approximately 8.8% of France’s population is Muslim; some have criticized the ban for stigmatizing young Muslim women, and painting them as victims of their religion.

On its face, the burkini controversy has nothing to do with laïcité. And yet it has everything to do with laïcité.

French municipal pools have strict hygiene rules that govern what swimmers can wear. Grenoble, the city that hosted Sunday’s burkini protest, requires swimmers (pdf) at public pools to wear a “clean, one-piece or two-piece swimsuit exclusively reserved for swimming.” Men can’t wear long boxers or tee-shirts, and women can’t wear skirts or sarongs. Public pools which enforce the burkini ban argue, among other things, that those outfits are more likely to bring particles into the water, impacting its quality.

“It is not a question of identity at all, nor a religious question, nor a question of discrimination,” argues Gilles Clavreul, former head of the governmental delegation for combating racism and anti-semitism, and director of the progressive think tank L’Aurore, which studies France’s political and social system.”We don’t have the right to bathe as we want in a pool. We are not allowed to bathe naked, we are not allowed to swim in shorts, normally we must wear a cap, etc. So yes, there are regulations, and yes, it is not always pleasant, and we can challenge them. But from the moment they are adopted by the competent authority, we must respect them.”

The activists disagree. “Freedom of conscience must apply to everyone, even to those whose convictions we do not share,” they wrote on Facebook. “If the condition for access to a service is to deny one’s religion (here, to uncover oneself), then there is an injustice. If there is an injustice, it must be corrected.”

Complicating matters is the fact that mayors can choose how to enforce these rules. In the northwestern city of Rennes,  for example, burkinis are allowed in municipal pools. That’s something the activists cite to justify their belief that hygiene rules are a thinly-veiled excuse for discrimination. “We are clean, our suits are clean, they are just more covering,” Nadia, one of the Grenoble activists, told French outlet 20 Minutes. Nadia said was previously denied access to pools because of her burkini, which meant she could no longer take her son with her. But, during the “Citizens Alliance” protest, they were able to swim together. “He was happy, so I was too,” she said.

The 2004 law says nothing about burkinis—or pools. But it’s not the first time the issue has been in the spotlight. Burkini-clad women have tried to swim in public pools with various degrees of success since at least 2009. And in 2016, France’s highest constitutional court overturned an edict put in place by the city of Nice that banned burkinis on beaches for fear that they would disrupt the public order. The decision prevented any city from putting in place similar bans.

The “Muslim Rosa Parks”

French people arguing over whether the rules constitute reasonable hygiene limitations or religious discrimination is a perfect illustration of the fundamental disagreements that inhabit—and inhibit—French society. At stake in this debate is determining what it means to be a religious minority living in a democratic society that considers secularism sacrosanct.

It’s also illustrated by the backlash over the activists’ decision to call themselves the “Muslim Rosa Parks.” Critics of the activists argue that nothing prevents Muslim women from swimming in a public pool, unlike segregationist US laws which prevented black Americans like Rosa Parks from accessing public services. “To say that banning burkinis is discrimination against Muslim women is to posit that the burkini is part of the identity of the Muslim woman, and constitutes for her a second skin that is physically impossible to shed,” writes one critic in the monthly magazine Causeur.

Rosa Parks “just wanted to assert her rights as a citizen” against a racist law, argues Clavreul. “What about the regulation of a pool is discriminatory? Nothing.”

But the women of Citizens Alliance believe that being denied access to an important public service—the right to cool off in a public pool during a heatwave—because of a clothing choice is discriminatory. The group says the comparison is about political symbolism. “We are well aware that, today, French Muslims are not prevented from going to university and are not prevented from using public transport,” says Elies. “The context is not quite the same; nevertheless, there are similarities … [Rosa Parks] said, ‘I’m fighting, because if I wait for others to fight for me, it’ll never move forward.’ And that’s why that analogy is made today.”

The road ahead

France has built a shared way of life, or vivre-ensemble, based on a strict definition of state-sponsored secularism. But it still hasn’t figured out how to square that foundational principle with the religious freedom of its minorities, especially Muslim women.

Minister for Gender Equality, Marlène Schiappa, has referred to the burkini controversy as an example of a larger “cultural struggle,” and argued it is the responsibility of elected representatives like city mayors to remind people about “the values of the Republic.” The mayor of Grenoble, in response, said it should not be the job of the country’s 36,000 mayors to decide whether public pools should be the next frontier of secularism. He wants French president Emmanuel Macron to decide. If similar past scandals are anything to go by, he may be waiting a while.

Elies wants this conversation to shift. “Today, Muslims in France are a minority, and rather than reflect collectively on how we can all live together for years to come, we are instead thinking about how we can split society to prevent a part of the population from participating,” he says.

Some argue this case is about state secularism; for others, it’s about gender equality; and for the activists, it’s about religious freedom and a sense of belonging. For France, it’s about how—or indeed, whether—its model of vivre-ensemble can accommodate all three.