State Dept. on ‘Burkinis’: ‘We Believe in the Ability of People to Express Their Religious Views as They See Fit’

Fayçal Benhassain | August 25, 2016 | 9:51pm EDT
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A woman wears a burkini on a French beach. (AP Photo)

Paris ( – The State Department has spoken out against moves to ban the Islamic “burkini” from beaches in some French jurisdictions, an issue that has been making waves this summer.

“We believe in the ability of people to express their religious views as they see fit, and we believe that in this case as well,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said on Wednesday.”

As for any Americans in France who may be affected, Trudeau said that “U.S. citizens are advised to comply with local laws.”

Several cities in southern France have banned the burkini (or burqini) – a Muslim swimming garment that covers the whole body, including the head and hair – from their beaches, including Nice, where 83 people were killed in a terrorist attack on Bastille Day. Some public swimming pools in the region have also taken the same decision.

The burkini is very rarely worn on French beaches, and the decision by the affected cities has drawn widespread comment, not just in France but across Europe.

No national legislation forbids the burkini in France. In order to avoid falling foul of the law, mayors are not mentioning burkinis in justifying the local ordinances. Instead, they use language such as “access to beaches is forbidden to any person not properly dressed, who is not respectful of morality and secularism and who has to respect the rules of hygiene and safety of swimming.”

Fatima Rafion, a Muslim designer from Comoros who works and lives in Paris called the prohibition of burkinis “indecent.”

“Christian nuns wear garments that cover all the body and head without any problem,” said Rafion.

Lamia Gasmi, a 30-year-old makeup artist of North African descent, called the moves absurd and said they would not bring anything positive.

“When you see nude women on some beaches it doesn’t seem to shock anyone. But when a woman wears a burkini a lot of people are shocked. That is the absurdity of the whole affair,” she said.

Leila, a student in a small city near Paris who is of Algerian and Moroccan descent, said everyone should be “free to wear whatever he or she wants.”

None of the three Muslim women wear Islamic garb themselves.

During a trip to the Vatican last week, French President Francois Hollande was asked by the international press about the burkini issue but declined to comment.

But in an interview published by the daily La Provence, Prime Minister Manuel Valls supported the mayors’ decision, declaring that the burkini was “based on the subjugation of women.”

Valls stopped short of demanding a new law, however, saying it was up to mayors to decide on the issue in their jurisdictions.

The decision by southern France cities and counties has attracted international attention, and drawn commentary across Europe.

The BBC interviewed Muslim women who said they did not like exposing their bodies to the public, and newspapers in Britain, Spain and elsewhere criticized the bans.

Media in Italy criticized some right wing politicians there who oppose the wearing of any Muslim garment in public places. Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said Italy would not follow France in banning burkinis.

Since the issue gained prominence recently, sales of burkinis have increased, according to Aheda Zanetti, a Lebanese-born Australian who says she invented the burkini and sells them online.

France first banned the wearing of Muslim veils in public schools and government offices in 2004, and in 2010 passed a law banning the wearing in public of any full face-covering garb.

By contrast the U.S. Justice Department intervened in 2003 on behalf of a Muslim schoolgirl in Oklahoma who was suspended for refusing to remove her hijab, or headscarf.

In his 2009 address to the Muslim world in Cairo, President Obama stated that “freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion … that’s why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it.”

He said Western countries should not prevent Muslim citizens “from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We can’t disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretense of liberalism.”

Two days later then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the restrictions were in place in France “because we are a secular state.”

He told lawmakers in Paris later that the burqa was “a symbol of servitude and humiliation.”

See related story:

German Court Rules Against Burqa as Lawmakers Set to Debate Controversial Ban Proposals

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