The French are obsessed with the burkini – and it’s all getting a bit embarrassing | Arwa Mahdawi

The world is burning and France is fixated on whether women wear long sleeves to have a swim – a furore with obvious roots in the country’s deep Islamophobia

Hello and welcome to the Get a Grip prize, which I just invented. The GAG award is given on an ad hoc basis to a country doing a standout job of humiliating itself on the global stage by fixating on something ridiculous while the world burns. The award honours those who seem to have lost all sense of perspective and gently urges them to try worrying about something more important.

There are many contenders for the inaugural GAG award, but I have decided to give it to France. There is plenty happening in France, yet huge swathes of the populace are still exerting embarrassing amounts of energy arguing about how much flesh you need to show in order to set foot in a public pool or resort. The French are obsessed (OBSESSED!) with debating the question of appropriate swimwear and it is getting very cringe.

More specifically, the French are getting their knickers in a twist over burkinis. The head-to-toe swimsuit, most often associated with Muslim women, was banned in a number of French towns several years ago. This ban has been strictly enforced and seems to have been extended to anyone wearing more clothes than the state deems strictly necessary. In 2016, for example, armed French police made headlines when they forced a Muslim woman on the beach in Nice to remove some of her clothing and issued her a ticket stating that she wasn’t wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”. As every good secularist knows, the way you demonstrate good morals is with a bit of sideboob.

Burkinis disappeared from the headlines for a bit owing to more pressing issues such as the global pandemic and war in Ukraine. I regret to report that they are back in the news because, last month, the city of Grenoble decided to let people swim in burkinis. A backlash followed this common-sense decision. The far-right leader Marine Le Pen declared that green-lighting burkinis was “how Islamist fundamentalists take over”. (Got to keep those fundamentalists at bay by persecuting any woman who wants to wear long sleeves for a swim.) Meanwhile, the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, described Grenoble city council’s policy as an “unacceptable provocation”. Speaking last week to National Public Radio in the US, the mayor of Grenoble noted that the burkini decision “touched some very intense emotions for people”. With all due respect, those people ought to find a therapist to deal with those intense emotions. If you are triggered by a woman not showing her bare legs in public, the problem isn’t Islam, it’s you.

Grenoble backsliding on burkinis didn’t just trigger intense emotions; it sparked a legal battle. Any day now, France’s highest administrative court is set to issue a decision on what sort of swimwear is legally acceptable. Truly a wonderful use of taxpayer resources.

While it may be dressed up with arguments about secularism (laïcité), the backlash against burkinis has obvious roots in France’s deep Islamophobia. However, to be fair, there is more to it than just hatred of Muslims; there are also weird ideas about hygiene. The French fashion police aren’t just busy patrolling what women wear – they are also militant in demanding that men wear tight-fitting swimming trunks in public pools. A law outlawing boxer-style shorts in pools has been in place since 1903. Budgie smugglers are cleaner than loose-fitting trunks, as they can’t be worn for hours pre-swim, the argument goes. I suppose that makes sense. But it seems a strange thing to fixate on, considering swimming pools are generally full of chlorine. I suggest France sticks to what it does best. Please, mes amis: eat some cheese, drink some wine and stop worrying about what other people wear when they swim.

• Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at guardian.letters@theguardian.com

Contributor

Arwa Mahdawi

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘I felt violated by the demand to undress’: three Muslim women on France’s hostility to the hijab
In France, a new law could seriously restrict women’s rights to wear headscarves in public, and there are fears that it will entrench Islamophobia

Myriam François

27, Jul, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
The new populism: how the far-right appeals to women voters
In far-right populist parties across the continent, a new generation of angry white women are rising to leadership roles. Why are they turning to groups that have traditionally opposed feminism?

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris, Kate Connolly in Berlin, Angela Giuffrida in Rome

29, Jan, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
I want to tell the French: don’t do it! But all we can do is watch the elections from the sidelines | Zoe Williams
I’d love to stop Britain’s neighbour from repeating our mistakes, but advice from overseas counts for nothing – and can sometimes backfire, writes Zoe Williams

Zoe Williams

11, Apr, 2022 @11:50 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on France’s ‘burkini bans’: ugly politics on the beach | Editorial
Editorial: Politicians have advanced numerous reasons to ban the swimwear at the seaside. They are mistaken

Editorial

24, Aug, 2016 @6:37 PM

Article image
What kind of French republic needs the protection of Marine Le Pen? | Fiachra Gibbons
Fiachra Gibbons: Le Pen's logic sees her calling for a ban on Jewish kippas. France must escape this kind of myopic secular fundamentalism

Fiachra Gibbons

26, Sep, 2012 @9:00 AM

Article image
The burkini ban: what it really means when we criminalise clothes
France is tearing itself apart over a swimsuit but it’s not the first time an item of clothing has caused a political storm. What we wear has always hidden deeper fears about sex, race and class

Sheryl Garratt

24, Aug, 2016 @5:48 PM

Article image
French mayor reignites burkini row with pool rule proposal
Grenoble mayor wants swimmers to dress ‘how they like’, including topless or in full-body suits

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

13, May, 2022 @9:05 AM

Article image
Anti-Islam rhetoric in French election risks ‘spiral of hatred’, says Paris mosque rector
Chems-eddine Hafiz says rightwing candidates are competing with each other to criticise Islam and Muslims

Angelique Chrisafisin Paris

27, Mar, 2022 @12:20 PM

Article image
Human rights groups vow to challenge burkini ban on Cannes beaches
Muslim organisations also among those to decry ruling signed off by mayor David Lisnard outlawing full-body swimsuits

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

12, Aug, 2016 @4:19 PM

Article image
The fear of Marine Le Pen – w​ill the next political earthquake happen in France?
Donald Trump’s victory in the US has given the far-right outsider hope of causing a shock in May’s election. But key differences between the two – and their electoral systems – stand in her way

Angelique Chrisafis

14, Dec, 2016 @4:00 PM