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

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Arwa Mahdawi

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