Authorities in several towns in France have controversially banned ‘burkinis’ – a form of swimwear popular with Muslim women – in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in the country. Is banning burkinis necessary to prevent public disorder or does it go too far and violate the right to freedom of religion?
What is the burkini ban?
The term ‘Burkini’ is mix of ‘burka’ (a full body cloak worn by some Muslim women) and ‘bikini’ (a 2 piece swimsuit)). It generally refers to a full body wetsuit (or other clothes covering most of the body) worn by Muslim women on the beach.
Images and videos have emerged of French police confronting women about their choice of clothing.
— Feiza Ben Mohamed (@FeizaK) August 22, 2016
In the video below, which was taken on a beach in Nice, two officers (wearing white t-shirts) speak to a woman in a hijab. As Buzzfeed explains, one of the officers asks the woman to leave the beach or remove her hijab before issuing her with a warning ticket. The woman says “I’ve been living here for years, I never had any problem”.
— Feiza Ben Mohamed (@FeizaK) August 23, 2016
The Guardian reports that, in another incident, a mother of two was fined on a beach in Cannes for wearing leggings, a tunic and a headscarf. Her ticket said that she was not “wearing an outfit respecting good morals and secularism“.
Secularism is the principle of strict separation of the State from religion and religious institutions. France has a long tradition of secularism (laïcité) which prohibits religious involvement in government affairs and state policies.
Does the burkini ban violate human rights?
either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest… religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
However, the freedom to manifest religion or belief is subject to certain limitations. Article 9(2) states that the freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject to such limitations as are “necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others“.
Several towns in France have made the decision to ban the wearing of this type of clothing in public. The ruling which bans burkinis in Cannes states: “Beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is liable to create risks of disrupting public order which it is necessary to prevent”.
The question is, if there is a risk that people wearing burkinis will disrupt public order, does that risk justify such a serious interference with people’s right to manifest their religion? If it does not, the ban will be disproportionate and a violation of human rights.
The Guardian reports that the ban will be put before France’s highest administrative court on Thursday following an appeal by French Non-Governmental Organisation, Human Rights League. It is challenging a decision of a lower court in Nice to uphold the ban on the outfit, which said that it was “necessary, appropriate and proportionate” to prevent public disorder after the recent series of terrorist attacks in France.
For more info
- Read our explainer on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion here.
- Find key cases on freedom of religion and belief here.
- Read our other resources on how human rights protect religious freedom here.