The XX Factor

Burkini Ban Violates Basic Human Freedoms, Rules France’s Highest Court

A Muslim lifeguard in a burkini in Sydney, Australia.

Matt King/Getty Images

A French burkini ban that has enraged observers around the world was suspended by the country’s highest court on Friday in a decisive ruling that painted the laws as blatant affronts to basic human rights and liberties. The court’s action only applies to the burkini ban in Villeneuve-Loubet, a seaside town just west of Nice, but it will set a precedent that could topple bans in up to 30 other French municipalities.

Villeneuve-Loubet’s prohibition of the full-body bathing suits worn primarily by observant Muslim women “dealt a serious and clearly illegal blow to fundamental freedoms of movement, freedom of conscience, and personal liberty,” the three judges of the State Council (Conseil d’Etat) wrote. Though the court will make its final ruling on the legality of the bans at a later date, this unequivocal decision makes it seem very unlikely that the judges could find reason to defend burkini bans in other towns.

Objections to laws that target Muslim women via their swimwear have intensified in recent days as news outlets printed photos of police officers in Nice ordering a woman in a head covering to remove her shirt. French news agency AFP reported that a Muslim woman wearing a full-body swimsuit in Cannes was ticketed for not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.” A witness said she saw the woman’s daughter crying as bystanders clapped for the police and shouted, “Go home.”

Political leaders in towns banning burkinis have offered a slew of thin excuses for the laws. Ange-Pierre Vivoni, a left-wing mayor in Corsica said his town prohibited the swimwear to prevent skirmishes between Muslim families and the anti-Muslim residents who’ve been harassing them. He’s already said he won’t lift his town’s ban, despite the court’s decision. Villeneuve-Loubet’s right-wing mayor, Lionnel Luca, has said swimming in long sleeves and pants is unhygienic, but a tribunal in Nice said the Villeneuve-Loubet ban was “necessary, appropriate, and proportionate” to keep the peace in the town. Friday’s court ruling said the judges found no evidence to support the idea that any sort of bathing suit could be a threat to public order.

Whatever justification mayors provide for their regulation of women’s bodies, autonomy, and religious practice, they have the universal effect of stoking violence against Muslims and giving cover to those who use the language of women’s empowerment to cloak their radical Islamophobia. In a world that’s watching the unprecedented rise of a openly anti-Muslim leaders, the court’s explicit rejection of any pretext for making Muslim women remove their clothing is a much-needed beacon of rational justice.