Australian designer Aheda Zanetti has welcomed a ruling by France’s top administrative court to overturn a ban on the burkini, but she says the battle for full acceptance is far from over.
“This [decision by the court to lift the ban] is giving us some time to educate people,” Zanetti tells Anadolu Agency by phone from her Sydney home on Saturday evening.
“Finally the French authorities have realized that a burkini swimsuit does not represent anything except that a woman chooses to be a little bit modest and wants to swim. Finally they have listened to us. One of our representatives is in France now encouraging people to learn more.”
On Friday afternoon France’s Council of State ruled the ban would be a “serious and clearly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms”.
The ban was subsequently lifted in one town, and while it is widely speculated that this will set a legal precedent for the 30 or so other French towns that have similar bans, there is no guarantee.
With former head of state Nicolas Sarkozy joining the April 2017 presidential race, and promptly telling France’s Figaro magazine that “the burkini is a political act, a militant act, a provocation” and vowing to impose a nationwide ban if elected, it looks up for discussion for some time to come.
France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls has claimed that the country is locked in a “battle of cultures” and that the full-body swimsuit symbolizes the enslavement of women.
Nonsense, says Zanetti, who came up with the original design for the modesty-preserving, full-body swimsuit in 2004.
“For you to ban something as positive as a piece of fabric that’s supposed to contribute to enjoyment and a happy and healthy lifestyle, body and soul, it’s like he’s enslaving the wearer by removing freedom of choice,” she says.
Zanetti says the inspiration for the design was her young, sport-loving niece, who was handicapped by “a skivvy [a lightweight high-necked long-sleeved garment], tracksuit pants and her hijab”.
The burkini was thus designed as a garment to suit a modest person, or someone who has skin problems, or a new mother who doesn’t want to wear a bikini.
“I wanted to give women freedom of choice, the flexibility of movement and the confidence they need to participate in any type of sporting activity they want,” she says.
“The burkini represents the wearer, which could be any woman, not just a Muslim woman, who has a desire for modesty.”
Early this week photographs of armed police ordering a Muslim woman on a beach in the French city of Nice to partially disrobe went viral on social media.
On Thursday a group of Muslim and non-Muslim women held a mock-beach demonstration outside the French embassy in London, protesting against the burkini ban.
Wearing bikinis and burkinis, the women held placards reading “Islamophobia is not freedom” and “Let them wear what they want”.
France’s Council of State has also heard arguments from the Human Rights League and an anti-Islamophobia group.
“The [French] mayor and the president were maintaining that the burkini was taking away the rights of women when it was totally the opposite,” Zanetti told Anadolu Agency.
“This is a product used for health, happiness and freedom. I’m talking about the freedom of choice. He [Valls] talks about the enslavement of women. The first thing that crosses my mind when I hear that is that he is referring to himself enslaving women by stopping us wearing what we want.
“He does not own that beach. Nor does he have the right to tell us what we should be comfortable in. Is it about what he wants us to be comfortable in or what we want to be comfortable in? He is [forcing] a woman to choose what pleases him.”
Amnesty International welcomed the court’s decision. The human rights group’s Europe director, John Dalhuisen, said it had “drawn a line in the sand”.
“The French authorities must now drop the pretense that these measures do anything to protect the rights of women,” Dalhuisen added.
Zanetti — who was born in Lebanon, but has lived in Australia for 27 years — says the people have spoken, the court has made a decision, but the battle is not yet over
“There’s been a misunderstanding about the function of the burkini and now this decision needs to be followed up with further discussion. For many of us, Muslim or not, modesty is a big part of our identity.”