PARIS — A Muslim woman garbed in a head-to-toe swimsuit — dubbed a "burquini" — may have opened a new chapter in France's tussle between religious practices and its stern secular code.
Officials insisted Wednesday they banned the woman's use of the Islam-friendly suit at a local pool because of France's pool hygiene standards — not out of hostility to overtly Muslim garb.
Under the policy, swimmers are not allowed in pools with baggy clothing, including surfer-style shorts. Only figure-hugging suits are permitted.
Nonetheless the woman, a 35-year-old convert to Islam identified only as Carole, complained of religious discrimination after trying to go swimming in a "burquini," a full-body swimsuit, in the town of Emerainville, southeast of Paris.
She was quoted as telling the daily Le Parisien newspaper that she had bought the burquini after deciding "it would allow me the pleasure of bathing without showing too much of myself, as Islam recommends."
"For me this is nothing but segregation," she said. [...]
The "burquini" covers the arms to the wrists and the legs to the ankle and has a hood to cover neck and hair.
An official in charge of swimming pools for the Emerainville region, Daniel Guillaume, said the refusal to allow the local woman to swim in her "burquini" had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with public health standards.
"These clothes are used in public, so they can contain molecules, viruses, et cetera, which will go in the water and could be transmitted to other bathers," Guillaume said in a telephone interview.
"We reminded this woman that one should not bathe all dressed, just as we would tell someone who is a nudist not to bathe all naked," he said.
Frankly, I think that the official's comments to the extent that the clothing contains germs is pretty silly. Human skin is pretty darned germy, and the bathing suits which cover almost nothing aren't doing much to keep germs from entering a pool or bathing area.
If the concern is that baggy clothing isn't as safe to swim in, that would be one thing; I have no idea if studies have ever been done, but it seems reasonable to suspect that looser, baggier clothes could become heavier with water than other ones, and that too much in the way of a baggy garment could impede one's ability to swim. But nobody's talking about safety here, are they?
The question of modesty when it comes to swimwear is a complicated one. Some women I know like the idea of these or these, while others find that a regularly-available skirted swimsuit or "shortini" style will do. But even the most modest of the suits at the links above don't offer the coverage of the Muslim "burquini," and will likely not impede anyone's ability to swim.
If the French officials were concerned about the ability of a woman to swim in baggy pants, I'd probably have some sympathy. Unfortunately, this seems like the usual clash between France's secular state and the growing Islamic population rather than a real concern about public safety. It's hard to argue with this woman quoted in the article:
Women "jump on the occasion so they can swim with their families. Otherwise, they end up staying on the beach and watching," said Leila Mouhoubia, who runs an online site from France that specializes in the sale of Islamic swimsuits. Sales, she said, are strong.Considering that women are allowed to wear swimsuits which are revealing far beyond the point of modesty in France, it seems as though Ms. Mouhoubia has a point.
"I think it's forbidden (in France) because it presents an image of the Muslim woman (and) they have prejudices against Muslims," she said by telephone. "They want women to be undressed."