France’s struggle with Islamic dress has moved into the swimming pool after a 35-year-old woman was banned from bathing in her “burkini”, a head-to-toe swimsuit.
The woman, identified only as Carole, was making her third outing in a burkini to the town pool at Emerainville, on the eastern outskirts of Paris, when the chief lifeguard ordered her to leave.
She was said to be breaking hygiene rules, but her ejection has become the latest episode in a battle between fundamentalist Muslims and a state that has banned head-cover from schools and may curb face-covering in public.
Carole accused the pool officials of illegal discrimination and went straight to the police and the media. “Quite simply, this is segregation,” she said. “I will fight to try to change things. And if I see that the battle is lost, I cannot rule out leaving France.”
The police refused to accept the complaint on the grounds that the lifeguard was just enforcing a rule that applies at all French public pools. Women must wear swimsuits and men must wear brief trunks rather than shorts, which are said to be more likely to harbour bacteria.
Carole, who was born in a traditional French family and converted to Islam at the age of 17, said she bought her attire on holiday in Dubai. The burkini, designed by Aheda Zanetti, a Lebanese-Australian, has become a hit in the Gulf and caused trouble in public pools in Europe and North America.
Despite the allusion to the Afghan burka, the swimsuit leaves the face uncovered. The body is clad in a track-suit-like tunic and coat and the head and neck are covered with a cross between a hijab and a diver’s balaclava helmet.
“I thought that it could enable me to enjoy the pleasure of bathing without uncovering myself, as Islam recommends,” she told Le Parisien newspaper. “I understand that it might shock people, but I am annoyed because I have been told that it is a political matter. I didn’t set out to cause a stir. My only aim was to be able to go swimming with my children.”
The local authorities insisted that no politics were involved. “The lady was almost fully dressed,” Daniel Guillaume, the head of sports facilities for the Seine-et-Marne département, said. “The personnel simply applied the rules that are in effect in all pools in France.” That view was not shared by politicians who want tougher measures to oppose a rise in body-covering by strict Muslim women, and Muslims demanding segregated sessions for men and women at pools and other sports facilities.
“Maybe you can see the woman’s face in this ridiculous swimsuit, but it is obviously a provocation by a militant,” said André Gerin, a Communist MP from the Rhône area. “Going straight to the police station is clear proof that there is a political project behind this outfit. No doubt this is the start of a new problem.”
Mr Gerin heads a 32-member parliamentary inquiry that opened last month to review the possibility of a law to bar Muslim women from wearing the face-covering niqab in public. President Sarkozy stirred fundamentalist anger in June when he sided with the review, saying that such dress was not a symbol of faith, but a sign of women’s subservience and that it had “no place in France”.
The move to legislate drew a violent response from foreign extremists. “Yesterday it was the hijab and today it is the niqab,” said Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. “We will take revenge for the honour of our daughters and sisters against France and against its interests by every means at our disposal.”
France caused a stir in the Muslim world in 2004 with a law barring the hijab headscarf and all other religious dress from state primary and secondary schools.
The measure, which was implemented without protest, is strongly backed by the public, including a substantial number of the six million Muslims in the country.