French Burqini Controversy

Welcome to CAIR-Chicago’s Opinion Corner, a new initiative designed to encourage an honest intellectual exchange of diverse perspectives on various subjects of interest to our constituents. In doing so, we hope to help provide balance to the public discourse on issues that often receive one-dimensional coverage in the public domain.

In this debut edition of Opinion Corner, Thibaud, a French-American intern at CAIR-Chicago, and Hebah, an activist and leader in the Muslim community, express unique perspectives on the extensive media coverage of a French Muslim woman who was denied access to a pool because she was wearing a full-body swim suit known as the “burqini.”

[column width=”47%” padding=”6%”]Thibaud Smerko[pronounced tee-bo] was born in Paris, but has lived in Chicago most of his life. He is a summer Communications Intern with CAIR-Chicago and recently returned from a year-long study abroad with one semester in Cairo and another in Argentina. As an International Studies major at the University of Illinois, focusing on Economics, Thibaud is interested in cross-cultural communication and International Relations.

Burqini Brouhaha: A French-American perspective on local pool happenings

Local pool happenings don’t usually catapult themselves to world headlines. But add some burqa to a staunchly secular France with five million Muslims and tensions start to run high. Polemical headlines are never far behind.

Having spent all of my childhood summers in France and lived there extensively, I would like to offer some perspective on the recent burqini brouhaha.

Last week, a French Muslim woman was denied access to a French public pool because she wanted to wear a burqini. A burqini (combination of the words burqa and bikini) is a swim suit that covers the body from head to ankle and is meant to allow Muslim women to swim in public while adhering to their modesty. (Burqa is a misnomer here as the burqini does not cover the face. Hijab-kini would be more accurate.)

As unheard of as it is in America, French public pool policy is vital to understanding the uproar. In France, public pools have a strict hygiene rule requiring bathers to wear a bathing suit specifically made for swimming. This ensures that the garment is only worn in the pool and not in the street, preventing excess dirt from entering the pool water. Imagine a 14-year-old playing soccer in his swim shorts for four hours on a hot dusty field and then jumping into a pool; that’s fine for a lake, but gross in a shared pool. It was a childhood norm for me to suffer through the mandatory cold showers and walk through a cold basin of water (to clean the feet) in order to access the pool.

The end result is that the experience of the pool is placed on a pedestal. Traditionally, for men, this means wearing a Speedo. For women, this means wearing a conventional, western-style bathing suit and maybe a swim cap. Again, the idea is that you would only want to wear a swim suit at the pool and not in the street.

A burqini could be perceived as regular street-clothes by an unknowing person. This is what happened when the Muslim woman was denied entry because of these pool rules. While some say discrimination, others claims adherence to hygiene rules.

During my scorching French summers, the Speedo was my worst enemy. The American kid in me told me that wearing a Speedo is humiliating, emasculating and borderline torturous. I much preferred the regular swim trunks that are the norm in America, but without a Speedo, the pool was simply off-limits.

In defense of my fellow Frenchmen, they much prefer wearing swim trunks and secretly avoid going to pools for the same, emasculating reasons (my dad, on the other hand, enjoys wearing his Speedo; you risk catching a glimpse of him flaunting it on Montrose beach).

Without a doubt, hygiene is a primary concern in French public pools rather than wanting women to be undressed, as some may claim. Women in France wear the same swim suit at both the pool and the less-regulated beach. It is important to note that France generally does not have the same taboo surrounding the body as in Muslim culture. Commonly, this translates into letting toddlers run nude and breastfeeding in public, both widely accepted and commonly found in France.

Given modesty concerns in Muslim culture, I can understand where burqini-clad women are coming from, but I also understand why French pool official, Daniel Guillaume, denied the burqini on hygiene grounds.

Scrapping the rules is not an option. Within the context of French public policy, allowing all types of bathing suits would increase the amount of bacteria in pools, thus increasing the amount of chemicals needed. While integration would increase, general pool attendance would decline and many French would feel attacked for having the public rules broken. The change required for harmonious integration must come from both sides. With this, I would like to propose a few solutions based on dialogue:

Hold gatherings between a French pool association, a Muslim women’s association, and a few different companies who make burqinis. Create accords between all pools of France and the burqini companies legitimizing the burqini. With a little media attention and education, pools would be familiar with the burqini, knowing how to distinguish it from regular street clothes. The burqini could become a ‘conventional’ swim suit and its branding as a pool-friendly suit would appease the hygiene fears of pool officials. In fact, it fits perfectly with Islam’s emphasis on cleanliness (Muslims wash five times a day before prayers).

Another middle ground solution would be to have women-only swimming hours. While this does not allow women to bathe with their children and husbands, it seems to have already taken hold in England and the U.S. and accommodates modesty concerns. Regardless, I don’t think change is likely to come on a national level, but rather on a small pool-to-pool basis, with pool officials becoming familiar with the burqini and the reasons Muslim women wear them.

Ultimately, the entire fiasco can only be called a brouhaha. It is, in fact, a confused disturbance far greater than merited and can be easily remedied by informed dialogue.

Copyright © 2009,

[/column] [column width=”47%” padding=”0″]Hebah Ahmed is a Muslim American with a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering from UIUC. She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee to Egyptian immigrants. She currently resides in Albuquerque, NM with her husband and two children. Hebah is a social activist who works to dispel the myths about Islam and Women in Islam through community presentations and panel discussions. She also heads Daughterz of Eve, a local Muslim girls youth group.

Violating Women’s Rights – Again.
An American Muslim woman weighs in on French Public Policy

They are at it again – forcing women to wear what they deem appropriate and preventing women from participating in the public sphere. These recent actions are just more in a long line of violations of women’s rights, including refusing girls’ access to education.

You probably think this is yet another article decrying the women’s rights abuses by the Taliban, right? Wrong.

The culprit is none other than the western, democratic country of France. Yes, France. Only instead of forcing women to cover up, they are forcing women to strip down. And if a woman refuses to adhere to their immodest requirements, she is prevented from getting an education, and even swimming in public swimming pools. According to the French Law on Secularity and Conspicuous Religious Symbols in Schools, Muslim girls who wear a headscarf are prevented from attending schools in France if they refuse to remove it. Now the government is proposing an all out ban on the burqa, the full body covering including the face, citing a common misconception that it is a sign of oppression by men. Instead, the proposed law effectively discredits a Muslim woman’s freedom to choose her own dress and dictates what is too much to wear in public.

Just recently, a Muslim woman convert choosing to wear a burqini was denied access to a public swimming pool because of the rules that apply in all (public) swimming pools which forbid swimming while clothed, a rule invoked by French official Daniel Guillaume. The burqini is a full body wetsuit with built in hood designed specifically as a modest swimsuit alternative (it differs significantly from a burqa, which is everyday wear that also covers the face) While French official correctly limit certain types of material fibers that can shed into the pool and clog up pool filters, the burqini is made of lycra or other material specifically appropriate for swimsuits.

Another explanation cited for the burqini’s denial is that certain clothing “can be worn elsewhere all day, so [it] could bring in sand, dust or other matter, disturbing the water quality, says Emmanuel Dormois, a Paris pool attendant. The ready solution, however, is to simply post a rule forbidding street clothing, rather than to ban all Muslim women who want to swim fully covered.

What is the real objection to swimming while clothed? Do swimming pools in France require submitting the body to the gazing eye (and lust) of every other patron in order to be pool worthy? When a Muslim woman dresses modestly in accordance with her beliefs and in order to avoid unwanted sexualization and objectification, should this bar her from participating in public activities?

Local mayor Alain Kelyor’s response is that, all this has nothing to do with Islam,” adding that the “burqini” is “not an Islamic swimsuit; that type of suit does not exist in the Koran,” the Muslim holy book. It is blatantly ridiculous for an outsider to the religion, with a superficial understanding of Islamic scholarship, to take the liberty to interpret Islamic law (incorrectly) and then create rules and laws to protect Muslim women from their own choices.

The contradiction of the French position is obvious.On the one hand, France sends its troops to Afghanistan to enable Muslim women access to education, while on the other hand, it prevents some Muslim women from getting an education in France. On the one hand, some French officials want to ban the burqa because they claim they want to protect a woman’s freedom of choice, yet on the other hand, when a woman freely chooses to dress modestly (as in the case of the woman who wore the burqini), she is denied access to public services.

The real problem here is the basic premise that some French officials operate on, which is that Islam is inherently violent, oppressive, and evil. This is not only a flawed premise, but a dangerous way to view 1.5 billion inhabitants of the world. In contrast, the U.S. has a thriving Muslim community that is well integrated and produces highly productive members of society. Muslim women who wear scarves and/or face veils are doctors, university professors, engineers, and even advisors to President Obama.

France would do well to study the example set by the United States, which ensures equal rights and preservation of democracy by striving to reasonably accommodate all religions in the public sphere rather than trying to ban any visual trace of them.

Copyright © 2009,