French town revives burkini brouhaha with changing pool rules

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GRENOBLE, France (AFP) — The Alpine city of Grenoble is set to revive one of France’s recurring summer debates on Monday by voting to allow the “burkini” in public swimming pools.

The all-in-one swimsuit, used by some Muslim women to cover their bodies and hair while bathing, has become almost as popular as ice cream and sun hats during the holiday season in recent times. years.

Considered a symbol of rampant Islamism by its detractors and an affront to France’s secular traditions, many right-wingers and some feminists would like to ban it outright.

It’s banned at most state-run pools — for hygienic, not religious reasons — where strict swimwear rules apply to everyone, including men who have to squeeze into swimwear. tight-fitting jerseys.

The city council of Grenoble, dominated by the green party EELV, is expected to abolish its bathing dress code on Monday, effectively allowing long clothes, beach shorts and bare breasts.

“Our intention is to remove all abnormal dress restrictions,” Mayor Eric Piolle said recently. “The problem is not to be specifically for or against the burkini.”

A Tunisian woman wearing a “burkini”, August 16, 2016. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

Opponents see it differently, including the influential conservative leader of the greater Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, Laurent Wauquiez, who has promised to withdraw funding from the city.

“I am convinced that what Mr. Piolle is defending is an appalling impasse for our country,” Wauquiez said in early May, accusing him of “doing business with political Islam” to “buy votes”.

Discriminatory

The regional row has put the burkini back in the national headlines, animating French talk shows and the political class ahead of legislative elections next month.

The question of how people dress for the pool touches on very sensitive topics in France, including fears over the influence of Islam and threats to the country’s cherished secularism.

The right to freely practice one’s religion is constitutionally protected, but the French state is also required by law to be neutral in religious matters, including within institutions.

“The burkini aims, purely and simply, to impose Islamist values ​​at the heart of bathing places and public leisure facilities,” said an open letter last week written by elected opposition officials in Grenoble.

A woman walks into the sea wearing a burkini in Marseille, southern France. (AP Photo, File)

Attempts by several local mayors in the south of France to ban the burkini on Mediterranean beaches in the summer of 2016 sparked the first storm around swimwear.

The rules, introduced after a series of terror attacks in France, were eventually struck down as discriminatory.

Three years later, a group of women in Grenoble caused a stir by forcing their way into a swimming pool wearing burkinis, leading the then prime minister to insist that the rules be followed.

French sports brand Decathlon also found itself at the center of a similar row in 2019 when it announced plans to sell a “sports hijab” allowing Muslim women to cover their hair while running.

For or against?

Monday’s vote in Grenoble “is an important moment for all concerned and their allies, but also in the fight against Islamophobia and the control of women’s bodies”, wrote the local campaign group Citizen Alliance on its page. Facebook.

Demonstrations in support and opposition to the move are also planned in the city after the council meeting where Mayor Piolle is expected to successfully push through the change.

French feminists are divided, with some seeing the burkini as a symbol of male oppression and others like Caroline De Haas writing that “no one should be stigmatized in a swimming pool because of their choice of swimwear”.

Grenoble, however, would not be the first to change its rules.

The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its swimming pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear.

The burkini debate comes as French Muslim women footballers fight to overturn a ban on the wearing of religious symbols in competitive matches.

The French Football Federation currently prohibits players from playing while wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols such as the Muslim hijab or the Jewish yarmulke.

A women’s collective known as ‘the Hijabeuses’ launched a legal challenge to the rules in November last year.

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