In the current political climate of anti-Muslim sentiment and fanatical ISIS attacks in Western cities, the vilification of Muslim women has become a central feature fueling the rise and support for racialist politics across Europe. There seems to be a consistent theme of Muslim women being singled out by society, and no other region is leading this debate than France.
Nearly a month ago, some French Mayors imposed a burkini ban on French beaches and images of armed police on a beach in Nice ordering a Muslim woman to remove her burkini sent shockwaves around the world. Social media went into a frenzy, opinions were divided, and even celebrities such as American comedian and actress Sarah Silverman weighed in on the debate slamming the burkini beach ban on Twitter as ‘f*****g heinous.’
However, most recently, the French court ruling declared the burkini ban as ‘illegal’, citing it as a non-hazardous risk to public space. Yet, French mayors have vowed to defy the court rulings and uphold the ban in their towns.
Three words: French Elections 2017. Muslim women have become the political pawns in the upcoming battle between France’s rival political parties for power.
The discourse surrounding the Muslim female choice of clothing has become a crux for political opportunists seeking to gain a footing in national politics. The left and right of the country’s presidential candidates have identified the burkini issue as a pathway to garnering further votes.
France has become the latest victim of ISIS led attacks, and the current climate of heightened intercultural tension has seen many of those in the political spectrum exploit this issue to stay on the front lines of the media. These same politicians are also capitalizing on the erroneous misconception that many burkini wearing women are abused and oppressed victims, shackled by religion and Islamic patriarchy.
From the political fringe right, to the more socialist candidates, it seems that all parties have weighed into the current burkini debate. Extreme right French National Front leader Marine le Pen has declared the burkini as a ‘fundamentalist uniform', whilst Nicolas Sarkozy has cited it as ‘provocative and militant.’ Even the liberal French Prime Minister Manuel Valls publicly stated that ‘for me, the burkini is the symbol of the enslavement of women.’
Those within pockets of the political institutions feel that they are voicing sentiments that are being echoed amongst their electorate population. From the rise Donald Trump in America, to Geert Wilders of the Netherlands and all the way to the recent popularity of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany Party, there seems to be a magnified scrutiny on the position of Muslim women in western societies.
This has proved to be somewhat of a wedge issue as some liberal cabinet members have criticised the call for a burkini ban in France. French-Moroccan Education minister Najat Vallaud Balkacem, a non-practicing Muslim, has slammed the burkini ban, stating that the ban was dangerous for national cohesion, further adding that, "It raises the issue of our individual freedoms: To what point are we ready to go to ensure an attire is respectful of good morals?” She also said that such bans encourage racist speech. Miss Vallaud Balkacem is justified in voicing her concerns.
The ample evidence supports her position. It has been estimated by The Met that there has been a triple hike in Islamophobic attacks in the last two years , most notably after the Paris attacks with many Muslim women enduring the brunt of physical and verbal assaults. In France and in other cosmopolitan cities, Muslim women have had their veils and hijabs ripped off by strangers in the streets and in one highly publicized case, a chef in Paris refused to serve women wearing hijabs, chasing them out of his restaurant. The consistent, and sustained nature of these incidents yields a new facet to the debate on the daily basis.
Whilst French politicians grapple with one another to monopolize this contentious debate, the continual use of racist rhetoric and fear mongering has created minacious conditions for Muslim women in public spaces. The French Republic has currently singled out the Muslim woman as the very menacing force, invading democratic nations, and threatening to alter the aesthetics of free nations. Of course, there is no truth to these alarmist inflations, but it is a winning formula that is amplified by feelings of visceral fear amongst the French population.
The burkini debate was never a pursuit to ‘free’ Muslim women on the part of French politicians. It was always a card used by the political establishment to gain an advantage in the coming national elections next year.
On the contrary, it has had a detrimental effect. It has led to further subjugation and humiliation of Muslim women, making them vulnerable targets of misdirected hatred.