These innovations weren’t purely about appearance; they often accompanied—and quickened—changes to women’s prescribed roles in society. They were tools and symbols of liberation, “political projects” of a sort.

The burkini is a bit different, of course. Valls and French politicians such as Marine Le Pen view it as a symbol of oppression, since women are presumably being forced to cover up against their will.

But the reality is not so simplistic. Many Muslim women choose to wear the burkini, and it gives many a freedom they might not otherwise have. Marwan Muhammad, the executive director of the Center Against Islamophobia in France, told the New York Times (paywall) that in conservative Muslim countries, women can’t go to the beach at all, and certainly can’t swim, since wet, clinging fabric would reveal their bodies. In France, the burkini allows them to enjoy spend a day at the beach and get in the water.

Protesters demonstrate against France's ban of the burkini, outside the French Embassy in London, Britain August 25, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall - RTX2N0KB
Image: Reuters/Neil Hall

The creator of the burkini, Aheda Zanetti, has said she invented the garment to give Muslim women more freedom of movement—sound familiar?—than they would have swimming in a burka. In an Aug. 24 editorial for the Guardian, Zanetti, who is Lebanese and lives in Australia, described how her invention gave her a sense of liberty she had been missing in her adopted, beach-loving country. “It was my first time swimming in public and it was absolutely beautiful,” she wrote. “I remember the feeling so clearly. I felt freedom, I felt empowerment, I felt like I owned the pool.”

Zanetti wanted the ability to do as she pleased, which is something countless women in France and elsewhere have similarly sought. Protesters and commentators continue to point out that nobody—not French officials or conservative Muslim men—should dictate what women wear. Probably the most culturally and fashionably French thing a woman could do is wear whatever she chooses.

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.