France’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled on Tuesday against allowing body-covering “burkini” swimwear in public swimming pools on religious grounds, arguing that it violated the government’s principle of neutrality toward religion.
While worn by only a few people in France, the head-to-ankle burkini is sparking a fierce political debate in the country.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin hailed the State Council’s decision as a “victory for secularism”. Some Muslim women denounced it as unfairly targeting their religion and their bodies, and based on outdated misconceptions about Islam.
The city of Grenoble, led by a leading from the Green Party, voted last month to allow women to wear the burkini in public swimming pools after a campaign by local activists. The city also voted to allow women to swim topless, as part of a broader relaxation of swimwear rules.
The governor, or the highest government official of the Grenoble region, blocked the burkini decision, arguing that it contradicted the secular principles of France.
The State Council backed the governor’s decision Tuesday, saying in a statement that Grenoble’s vote came “to meet a religious demand” and “harm the neutrality of public services.”
The ruling was the first under a controversial law, endorsed by President Emmanuel Macron, to protect “republican values” from what his government describes as the threat of religious extremism.
The dress code at public swimming pools in France is strict, for what authorities say are hygiene reasons: Hats are required, and loose-fitting swimwear or other bulky clothing is generally prohibited. Diving suits are not allowed in many swimming pools as well, as are some suits for sun protection.
Some other cities and towns allow the burkini to be worn in public swimming pools. One such city is Rennes, but its decision was to relax the swimwear rules rather than on religious grounds.
The pioneer of Grenoble argued that women should be able to wear what they wanted and express their religious convictions in swimming pools as in the street. Opponents of the burkini – including local officials on the far right as well as on the left – have argued that the swimsuit represents the oppression of women and a potential gateway to Islamic extremism.
Six years ago, the Council of State repealed a local ban on the burkini, amid shock and anger after some Muslim women were ordered to strip off their bodily clothing on the beaches of the French Riviera.
For Fatima Bint of the Muslim feminist group The Lapp, Tuesday’s decision is a “clear step back” that would further isolate the women who cover their heads and bodies in public.
She said that while some Muslim women are forced by their male relatives to cover themselves, “Muslim women are not homogeneous. (French authorities) view Muslim women from one perspective.” She blamed remnants of the colonial era as “the fixation on Muslim women’s bodies by politicians who want to control them”.
Grenoble’s decision to swim topless has not been threatened in the courts.