08/24/2016 01:57 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2017

The Burkini Ban And The Notion Of A 'Good' French Muslim Woman


The Burkini has certainly become the "hot topic" at the end of this summer season in France. The current conversation isn't dominated by talk about the Olympic Games and their charm, or anything about the continuous deterioration of the situation in Syria or Yemen or Iraq or even in Turkey, where a (new) dictatorship emerges.

We'll have to come back to these important topics. Instead, let's turn to the theme of the week, which concerns the burkini, the bizarre feminine nautical garment whose name comes from combining the words "burqa" and "bikini." The issue is simple: several municipalities in France have forbidden these bathing suits, and naturally the issue quickly became national, and then international news.

  The only way to calm things down and move forward would be to hold a serious and open debate about this implicit requirement of total assimilation.

Opinions regarding the ban are numerous and varied. Some view it as an Islamophobic, racist and vote-mongering act, while others defend it as a preventative measure against the expansion of Muslim integration and a defense of secular society. The conversation has exploded on social networks. Opinion pages that are fighting against these "integrated bathing suits" immediately follow ones that defend them, or at least don't pretend to hide the real motivations behind its detractors.

We're willing to bet that this noise will last until the end of the month, as we wait for a new theme to capture our general delirium. As a sign of intellectual discomfort that this situation creates, many bloggers prefer to opt for humor, and this journalist has even done so by imagining a scenario of a film shot in Saint Tropez that would be called The Policeman and the Burkini Women.

Since the first issue with the veil arose in 1989, the controversies linked to Islam have followed behind with the regularity of a metronome. It has now been over 25 years that these "debates" have been marked by the absence of reason and by the near impossibility to have discussions, when they're ever possible, with any serious intellectual discourse. This lack of rationality has peaked after the succession of attacks in France since January 2015 and the degradation of a healthy climate across the country.

Yet, the fear of Islamic terrorism does not explain everything because France has had a problem with Islam for a very long time. The growing visibility of the practice of this religion, but also the confusion, knowingly supported by a party of the political class and media elites, between the visibility (and the non-discretion) of certain populations of foreign nationality and their Muslim faith (real or supposed) are, at its origin, an identity crisis, which the extreme-right party knows how to effectively exploit.

  The swimmer in the burkini has become the symbol of masculine oppression in a country that is still incapable of guaranteeing salary equality between sexes.

Is France still France even though so many of its citizens are Muslim? To this question, the extreme-right answers negatively while other major political figures -- who aren't far from thinking the same thing -- are kicking around the idea of an "Islam of France," which makes us ask ourselves "for whom?" and "how will that be defined?" This is therefore an acceptance of a permanent Muslim presence on French soil, as it's understood there are shared links with the colonial past.

But, that's not all. Beyond the great speeches on the defense of women's rights (the swimmer in the burkini has become the symbol of masculine oppression in a country that remains incapable of guaranteeing salary equality between sexes), what this controversy reveals is that French nationals who practice Muslim faith or culture can openly differentiate themselves from the rest of their compatriots.

Whether you like it or not, it always comes back to the same question of assimilation: Does being a "good" French Muslim woman mean that she must never show that she is Muslim? Such questions risk sparking a fire, but only those who are uniting against the burkini are the ones thinking about it seriously. What's more, they're now asking amongst themselves if wearing a burkini makes one a "real" Muslim...

The burkini provokes tension because it is seen as an opposition to total assimilation. The ban on the veil or the burqa, which only a portion of French public opinion rejects -- a fact politicians understand very well -- reveals the true tension at the heart of this debate: Women of Muslim faith or culture don't assimilate, or, to be more precise, they don't assimilate as much as public opinion would like and requires of them.

Men, as far as the general public are concerned, elicit fewer emotions. Sure, there have been plenty of complaints lately about the risks of radicalization, but even so, there is less tension and fewer problems for them. While some men who wear beards, swim with Bermuda shorts that cover their knees or walk around in their old hipster shoes may occasionally experience the wrath of an irritated public in France, it's nothing compared to the problems that women face on a daily basis.

This all stems from one of the most taboo subjects in French society. There's this bright idea that men of Muslim faith or culture are "beyond help" because they are less susceptible to being totally assimilated. And since we can't do anything about that, we bring this battle to everything concerning their wives.

In this light, we can understand why wearing a veil provokes such strong emotions. The only way to calm things down and move forward would be to hold a serious and open debate about this implicit requirement of total assimilation. But, given the current context, and seeing all the indignant responses from the French political class (and their media clientele), there's a small chance of that ever happening.

This post first appeared on HuffPost Maghreb. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.