Can Europe Make It?

From "wear what you want" to reclaiming freedom, equality and solidarity

City activists across Europe have thrown beach parties against France’s burkini ban and the abuse of laïcité as a justification for the crackdown.

Lucile Gemähling
20 September 2016

A scene from the beach party in Berlin. Photo by Armin Langer. All rights reserved.There is much more than meets the eye in the apparently basic claim that we should all be free to wear what we want.

The weather was almost Mediterranean on the last Thursday of August in Berlin, so lounging in a sundress in front of Brandenburger Tor – and the French embassy – didn't feel all too weird. As in London and Vienna, the 'burkini' ban ordered by 30 mayors of French coastal towns also inspired Germany-based activists to organise protests.

In Berlin, the 'Beach Party Against Racism' was the result of a call launched on Facebook by the Salaam-Schalom initiative after it was reported that policemen had forced a woman wearing long sleeves and a headscarf to take off her shirt. The accompanying picture instantly went viral on social media.

Within 24 hours over a thousand people had expressed interest on the Facebook event page, and other beach parties were announced in Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Düsseldorf. About 60 people actually came for the action on Thursday evening, making the temporary beach neither too full to lay down a towel nor too empty to be anything but a protest.

Participants appeared in 'burkinis', bikinis, bathing suits, shorts, summer dresses and hats, issuing a clear and direct challenge to the ban’s paranoid and authoritarian take on beachwear: ‘look at us not giving a damn what the person sitting next to us has on! now lay off and let us wear what we want!’ On the megaphone, a black, Muslim, headscarved woman asks a shirtless man in pink bathing shorts to stand up next to her. “you're half-naked and I wear a hijab”, she tells him, “and we are one!” It is that simple.

But, of course, it isn't just that simple, as everyone who saw the above picture already suspects. The young woman who came to the beach party armed with a sign demanding the end to the colonisation of her body certainly knows.


Just a day later, the highest French administrative court, the state council (Conseil d'Etat), suspended one town’s ban in response to a challenge from the Committee Against Islamophobia in France and the French Human Rights League. "Victory!" posted one of the beach party organisers on Facebook when the verdict – which described the ban as "seriously, notoriously, and illegally damaging to fundamental freedoms including freedom of movement, freedom of conscience and religion, and personal freedom".

Based on that first verdict, local administrative courts ruled against bans in cities such as Fréjus, Cannes, Nice and Menton – where mayors maintained bans despite the unequivocal state council decision. Up to this day, all ban orders brought to court were suspended. However, ban opponents have grounds to remain concerned.

The use and abuse of laïcité

Indeed, there were two moments of truth around the 'burkini ban'. First, the shock of seeing the ban in practice – those pictures. Second, the decision of the state council confirmed that the Committee Against Islamophobia in France, an organisation routinely targeted by racist suspicion and scrutiny, possesses a much stronger grasp of individual freedoms as granted by law than (most) elected representatives from most political parties. Indeed, the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, had supported the ban just one week earlier. He did so, of course, by invoking 'laïcité' (French secularism) and women's rights.

The French researcher and activist Hanane Karimi, writing in French in Middle East Eyes about the (ab)use of the concept of laïcité to stigmatise and criminalise a category of citizen, recalls a similar scenario from nearly 30 years ago. In 1989, a ban of headscarves was issued in a school and then suspended by the state council. This, Karimi reminds us, was the beginning of an attempt at redefining the concept of laïcité against free religious practice.

Laïcité is a concept for a non-religious state, separating state and religious powers in a way that truly guarantees religious freedom to believers (and non-believers) of all faiths equally. It was passed as a law in 1905. In contrast, the new concept of "exclusionary laïcité" as it appeared in discourses in the context of the hijab school ban, argues for the removal of religious practice from the public sphere.

Put succinctly: once a concept/law designed to guarantee individual freedom and abolish state religious discrimination, laïcité is thus nowadays predominantly used to justify state interference with freedom of conscience and religion. Furthermore, the redefined concept serves solely in debates regarding the practice of Islam, and is most often used to police Muslim women’s attire. That shift seems almost irreversible, now that even attempts by the state-funded Observatory of Laïcité to defend the concept’s original definition earlier this year have been countered by Prime Minister Valls.

The 1989 debate led to the legal ban of 'religious symbols' in state schools in 2004: an undercover ban of headscarves that also regularly takes aim at long skirts and modest clothing. The fact that politicians, from Manuel Valls to Nicolas Sarkozy and beyond, persist in using laïcité in a way that constitutes an undeniable perversion of its original legal meaning should be grounds for serious concern around the world. As Karimi insists: "What is happening in France is severe and dangerous. The political elite is isolating and stigmatising part of the French population on the ground of its faith."

The need for solidarity

The story of the 'burkini' ban may not be over yet, and the story of Islamophobia in France definitely isn't. Their ramifications spread widely. Armin Langer, one of four organisers of the beach party in Berlin, explained in a short statement to the press that a ban on modest religious attire affects more traditional Jewish women just as it does Muslim women, and noted that traditional Jewish people as well as individuals from other or without religious traditions had signed up to the protest.

A wave of solidarity, he writes, is urgently necessary at a time when politicians use Islamophobic speech to gain influence all over Europe, Germany and France included. Similarly, in France, the French Jewish Union for Peace, in a statement published on their website against the ban, calls for a true and broad 'laïc' reaction – in the sense of the 1905 law – against the racist, neoliberal, and war-inclined political consensus shared by the major political parties.

In conclusion: it seems like the struggle for the right to wear what we want is far from won, and it will probably take us many places before it is. In Germany, a debate is currently rising around banning the 'burka' (the term is misused). Germany does not have a concept of laïcité, and its conservative party officially claims Christianity.

The debate therefore should revolve around the other, second pillar of argument: women's rights. Indeed, Valls inadvertently showed us the importance of rallying under this banner as well in France, when he published the piece, ‘In France, women are free’ in response to a  New York Times article that gave voice to French Muslim women. France, we could so easily remind him, is the country where a law proposal introducing ineligibility for political candidates found guilty of sexual harassment was blocked a few weeks ago by a parliament where only around 27 per cent of MPs are women.

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