PARIS — France’s top administrative court overturned a ban on burkinis in a Mediterranean town, in a decision Aug. 26 that should set legal precedent regarding a swimsuit crackdown that has divided the country and provoked shock around the world.
The ruling by the Council of State Aug. 26 specifically concerns a ban on the Muslim garment in the Riviera town of Villeneuve-Loubet, but the binding decision is expected to impact all the 30 or so French resort municipalities that have issued similar decrees.
The bans grew increasingly controversial as images circulated online of some Muslim women being ordered to remove body-concealing garments on French Riviera beaches.
Lawyers for a human rights group and a Muslim collective challenged the legality of the ban to the top court, saying the orders infringe basic freedoms and that mayors have overstepped their powers by telling women what to wear on beaches.
Mayors had cited multiple reasons for the bans, including security after a string of Islamic extremist attacks, risk to public order, and France’s strict rules on secularism in public life.
The Council of State ruled that, “The emotion and concerns arising from the terrorist attacks, notably the one perpetrated in Nice on July 14, cannot suffice to justify in law the contested prohibition measure.”
It ruled that the mayor of Villeuneuve-Loubet overstepped his powers by enacting measures that are not justified by “proven risks of disruptions to public order nor, moreover, on reasons of hygiene or decency.”
“The contested decree has thus brought a serious and manifestly illegal infringement on basic freedoms such as freedom to come and go, freedom of conscience and personal freedom,” the ruling reads.
Lawyer Patrice Spinosi, representing the Human Rights League, told reporters in Paris that women who have already received fines can protest them based on Aug. 26’s decision.
“It is a decision that is meant to set legal precedent,” he said. “Today all the ordinances taken should conform to the decision of the Council of State. Logically the mayors should withdraw these ordinances. If not legal actions could be taken” against those towns.
But the mayor of the Corsican town of Sisco said he wouldn’t lift the ban he imposed after an Aug. 13 clash on a beach.
“Here the tension is very, very, very high and I won’t withdraw it,” Ange-Pierre Vivoni said on BFM-TV.
He said he doesn’t know whether a woman was actually wearing a burkini the day a clash occurred that set a group of Corsican sunbathers of North African origin against villagers from Sisco. It took days to untangle the events leading to the violence that many immediately assumed was over a burkini sighting.
The bans have become a symbol of tensions around the place of Islam in secular France.
Many officials —including Prime Minister Manuel Valls — have argued that burkinis oppress women. But critics say the bans were feeding a racist political agenda as campaigning for next year’s French presidential elections were kicking off.
India-West adds: Burkini, the garment at the center of this debate, is a two-piece swimwear that covers the whole body except the face, hands and feet. Some Muslim women choose to wear it as a sign of faith.
A mix of “burka” and “bikini,” burkinis are being produced by fashion houses to cater to those seeking modest yet fashionable swimwear. Sporting a burkini is also a personal choice. In 2011, when celebrity chef Nigella Lawson appeared in a burkini style swimsuit at Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia, it caught everyone’s attention. And now when the garment is hitting the headlines once again, the buzz is giving the beachwear big publicity around the globe. According to CNN Money, sales have spiked for burkini makers after the French crackdown.
Other pieces of clothing mostly worn by Muslim women around the world have also found place in fashion in the recent months. Hijab, the headscarf Muslim women choose to wear to cover their head, was featured on the catwalk at this year’s London Fashion Week, a sign that there needs to be more diversity in fashion.
Last year, fashion retailer H&M featured Mariah Idrissi, a 23-year-old Muslim model wearing a hijab in a video. Fashion giant Dolce & Gabbana, too, produced a collection of hijabs and abayas (a robe like dress) targeted to Muslim customers in the Middle East, which Vogue described as garments engineered for modesty but having all the flair of any other Dolce & Gabbana collection.
Clearly, there is a market that is waiting to be tapped into. According to a report on telegraph.co.uk, the Muslim fashion market is estimated to be worth 226 billion pounds by 2020, according to the State of the Global Islamic Economy.
In India, too, the modest fashion movement is gaining momentum. Fashion blogger Farheen Naqi, who started her blog, Filter Fashion, and who boasts an impressive follower count of 23.8K on Instagram, regularly posts pictures showing her wearing trendy outfits but in a more modest way.
“I wanted it to serve as a platform where I hoped girls like me could…see that it is possible to dress modestly and still be fashionable,” Naqi, who shuttles between Mumbai, Lucknow and Seychelles, told Hindustan Times.
The report also mentions Chennai-based 26-year-old Ayesha Nawab, a trained pilot and English language teacher, who showcases her love for colors, headscarves and prints on her Instagram account.
– Elaine Ganley and Angela Charlton contributed to the AP report.