Middle Eastern Media React to French Burkini Ban

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Views from the Region

The burkini ban implemented in various parts of France has generated headlines around the world, pitting French secularism against individual rights. For proponents of the ban, the wearing of the full-body swimsuit by Muslim women is a symbol of religious oppression and a mark of failed assimilation. For opponents, the ban is an unacceptable assault on the right of a woman to wear whatever she wishes. The reaction in the regional media has been overwhelmingly in defense of a women’s right to wear the burkini. Some have connected the issue to France’s old colonial relationship with the region, but most simply express frustration that men continue to dictate policies that restrict women’s choices.

The burkini ban is seen by Al Jazeera’s Rachel Shabi not as an attempt to redress gender inequalities, but as a throwback to France’s imperialist past and its efforts to “save” North Africa and the region from itself: “Rather than being about an equality-driven, French Republic commitment to secularism, the burkini ban seems to derive more from ideas percolated around French colonialism in North Africa — where so many of its Muslim citizens have roots. The hijab, at that time, was derided, seen as a symbol of Islamic oppression and a part of what made North African countries so inferior….This ‘mission civilisatrice’ saw a moral duty in colonization: A self-elevating sense of responsibility to educate and liberate populations across North Africa. And there are unmistakable echoes of this sentiment in the words of some French politicians and feminists, who see veiled Muslim women as, by definition, oppressed and in need of saving. It’s also there in the irony of wanting these apparently “oppressed” Muslim women to be visible, to have a voice – but not actually giving the same women a voice or any agency in this debate.”

Melis Alphan, writing for the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News, is concerned that the current debate surrounding the burkini draws attention to the wrong argument, while ignoring the more important task of “implementing correct policies. The names, nationalities and religions change but the reasoning of these people never changes — it is the same everywhere….Sexual attacks will only decrease if these men, including politicians and police officers, do their jobs properly. But both their minds and their capacity fall short of this and they instead spend their working hours debating women’s clothes….Two photographs depict perfectly the world we live in and the masculine bullying so prevalent everywhere. One is in France, where the police can be seen forcing a woman on the beach to take off her ‘burkini’. The other is in Iran, where the police are warning a woman by the sea because her hair is too exposed.”

Those who oppose the wearing of burkinis in public beaches, argues Diana Moukalled in an op-ed for Al Arabiya, should remember that for many women the swimsuit is a means of liberating oneself from the confines of a home-bound existence: “Secular people screaming at a woman to go home resembles what has happened to many Arab and Muslim women who have tried to defy prohibitions in their society in terms of what to wear, but were reprimanded by people and yelled at to go home. In this case, French secularism seemed to target women’s choices….These seculars have forgotten that a woman going out and enjoying the beach with people who do not resemble her is an act of interaction with the public outside of her home. Muslim women in these foreign societies are not all free to go to the beach, so a woman’s presence on the beach in a burkini seemed like a step forward and should have been encouraged, not censured. What is shameful is that condemnation came from seculars who did not find anything wrong with telling women what to wear.”

A similar argument is put forward by Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, who, in a recent Asharq Alawsat op-ed, characterized the wearing of the swimsuit as an act of liberation that few people around the world, both religious and secular, seem to find acceptable: “The burkini is a new outfit designed to allow Muslim women to spend time on beaches and swim in public places if they wish to do so. The burkini faces three contradictory stances; mayors reject it because it is Islamic, Islamic militants reject it because it is un-Islamic, and a few practicing Muslims approve of it….There may not be more than a hundred Muslim women who want to wear the burkini and they would be part of the Muslim liberal minority. However, it reflects the state of the cultural clash and the increasing challenges faced by Muslims in the West with regards to the workplace, clothes and schools….The freedom to practice one’s religion is a right that is protected by the constitution…The west is the land of freedom, but it is only protected as long as it does not infringe on the freedoms of others, like extremists do.”

Jordan Times’s Hasan Abu Nimah pushes against the narrative that casts the burkini as a religious symbol: “Evidently, burkini is by no means a religious dress, let alone a symbol of religion. It is simply a swimsuit for those who choose to cover up, and it provides them freedom to participate in activities they would not have previously joined, opening the door to fitness and health….That a woman decides to cover part or most of her body on beaches should be no one else’s concern. It is an essential part of one’s personal freedom as long as it does not break the law or imply any form of indecency….The problem, therefore, is not the clothing. Rather, it is the association of that particular item of clothing with those who mostly wear it: Muslim women. The opposition to the burkini is simply a smokescreen to cover up a much deeper and more serious fear and concern. Islamophobia has been building up in some Western countries to such an extent that the extremist elements within them do not want to see Muslims around at all, and if they do have to be present, they should not make their presence obvious or noticeable.”

Finally, Asharq Alawsat’s Khalid Yaymout mounts a criticism of the current manifestation of secularism in France, suggesting that it risks harming rather than defending human rights: “Secularism requires neutrality with other religions and thoughts; however, in the French case, secularism is turning into a mean[s] to destroy other people’s freedoms to secure the perfect neutrality. Social interactions have given politics an important role and significance; therefore, the ban of veil through a judicial or legal decision, as happened in Paris, has transformed the protection of secularism into a movement that violates human rights and into a new religion.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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