What Do Humanists Make of the Burkini Ban?

Last week French police cited a Muslim woman for wearing a hijab on a beach in Nice, France, and ordered her to remove her headscarf, marking the latest incident in a clash over religious freedom, women’s rights, and national security in France.

As reported by the French news agency Agence France-Presse, Siam (who only gave her first name) was confronted for failing to wear “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.” The thirty-four-year-old mother of two explained that she was merely sitting on the beach with her family. “I was wearing a classic headscarf. I had no intention of swimming.”

Nice became the latest town in France to adopt the so-called burkini ban, which prohibits clothing that “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks.” Other towns that have adopted the ban include Menton, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Cannes, Cap d’Ail, Eze, Mandelieu-La Napoule, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Saint-Laurent-du-Var, Villefranche-sur-Mer, and Villeneuve-Loubet. In Cannes, three women were each fined thirty-eight Euros—around forty-three US dollars—for violating the ban.

The burkini is a full-body suit and head covering that was first conceived as sportswear some ten years ago by Australian designer Aheda Zanetti after she watched her niece struggle to play netball in baggy clothes and a hijab. It has since become the chosen swimwear of some Muslim women in France.

The Human Rights League (LDH) sued Villeneuve-Loubet claiming the town’s burkini ban is a “serious and illegal attack on numerous fundamental rights.” A tribunal court in Nice found the ban was a “necessary, appropriate, and proportionate” response to the recent terrorist attacks in France, including one in Nice on July 14. The court added the swimsuit is likely to “offend the religious convictions or non-convictions of other users of the beach” and be seen as “a defiance or a provocation exacerbating tensions felt by the community.” The LDH appealed the tribunal court’s ruling to the country’s highest administrative court, which struck down the ban on Friday. While the decision is meant to serve as legal guidance for French towns that have imposed or are considering burkini bans, today it’s being reported that mayors in some of those towns intend to continue enforcing the ban.

In adopting the burkini ban, Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi, a member of the center-right French Les Républicains party, said that “hiding the face or wearing a full-body costume to go to the beach is not in keeping with our ideal of social relations.” His remarks echoed statements made by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls that the burkini is “not compatible with the values of France.”

The French values that Estrosi and Valls refer to is laïcité, or secularism, which was formally established by a 1905 French law on the separation of church and state. The law, according to the first article, assures “liberty of conscience” and guarantees “freedom of worship subject only to the restrictions hereinafter imposed in the interests of public order.” Those restrictions mandate state neutrality on religion, such as prohibiting the public funding of religious institutions, and outlawing religious symbols on public property.

What should humanists make of France’s burkini ban?

Humanists have three core values that are at stake here: separation of church and state, women’s rights, and individual freedom. Some humanists may support the ban as a means to limit religious influence on French political affairs, others may support it as a way to liberate Muslim women from the confines of religiously imposed dress codes. But I propose that humanists oppose the burkini ban because it infringes individual freedom and bodily autonomy in the guise of preserving secularism and protecting women’s rights.

Humanists should be appalled that the principle of secularism is being used to justify imposing state restrictions on individual religious practice and expression. Secularism commands that the government remain neutral on religion and show neither favoritism nor hostility towards religious groups. By doing this the government is able to guarantee both the freedom of and freedom from religion. Banning religious garb in public violates this command, in the same way that mandating adherence to religious dress codes does.

As outlined in the Humanist Manifesto II, the separation of both church and state and ideology and government is imperative, but a secular state must encourage “the maximum freedom for different moral, political, religious, and social values in society.” This necessarily must include Muslim women who choose to adhere to Islam and voluntarily follow Islamic dress codes.

This does not, however, mean that humanists should refrain from criticizing the status and role of women in Islam or religion in general.  We should continue to support ex-Muslim women who speak out against Islamic and civic authorities who force or coerce women to cover their faces and bodies against their will. But we should also support Muslim women who choose to cover themselves and trust them when they say they aren’t being oppressed.