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A French city approved burkinis in its pools. Then the backlash came

A burkini (R), a culotte swimmer (C) and a csuta are on display in the exhibition 'Cherchez la femme' (lit. Look for the woman) in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany, 30 March 2017. The exhibition is to run from 31 March to 02 July 2017. Photo: Christophe Gateau/dpa | usage worldwide (Photo by Christophe Gateau/picture alliance via Getty Images)
A burkini (R), a culotte swimmer (C) and a csuta are on display in the exhibition 'Cherchez la femme' (lit. Look for the woman) in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany, 30 March 2017. The exhibition is to run from 31 March to 02 July 2017. Photo: Christophe Gateau/dpa | usage worldwide (Photo by Christophe Gateau/picture alliance via Getty Images)

GRENOBLE, France — Grenoble Mayor Éric Piolle was the first environmentalist to lead a major French city, and this year his Alpine town has been named a European green capital. By the end of the year Grenoble will meet all its electricity needs with renewable energy.

But no one's talking about that, he says. Rather, Piolle is being assailed for allowing the burkini in his town's public pools.

"It touched some very intense emotions for people," he says during an interview in his office.

Piolle grew up Roman Catholic and he says 30 years ago, there were more signs of Catholicism in public. He says the religion that's more visible today in France is Islam, and that makes some people nervous.

"I understand that they struggle with religious expression in the public space," he says.

But the mayor says people are confusing things. While France bans outward religious symbols in public schools or in government offices to ensure neutrality, people are allowed to wear what they want in public.

In mid-May, the town council approved the wearing of full body-covering bathing suits, commonly known as the burkini, in Grenoble's public municipal pools. Piolle said there was simply no reason to ban them.

The backlash was immediate. In a TV interview, far-right leader Marine Le Pen called the full body-covering swimsuit a threat to French secularism and beyond.

"It's a sign of separatism and of the submission of women," Le Pen said. "The opposite of our values and our constitution. This is how is Islamist fundamentalists take over. Victories involving food or clothing may seem innocuous, but are very grave."

It isn't just the far right. President Emmanuel Macron's interior minister, a hardliner, called the Grenoble ruling a provocation — and immediately filed an injunction to block it in court. The mayor has appealed.

Across from the Grenoble train station is the office of Alliance Citoyenne, a citizens rights association that has been fighting for the body-covering bathing suit to be accepted in public pools. Elies Ben Azib heads the organization, which also fights to protect the rights of disabled and impoverished people, and only recently took up the struggle for Muslim women who want to wear a bathing suit that protects their modesty.

Ben Azib, who happens to be Muslim, says the group never had any problems with its other work. But there was political harassment as soon as it came to Muslim women. He says Muslims are always suspected of having a hidden agenda.

"If we say we only want to go to the swimming pool — nothing else — they say, 'Yeah, but after that you will ask for separate swimming hours [for men and women] and then after that, you will ask to pray in the swimming pool, and then open a mosque in the swimming pool,' " he says and laughs. "Come on guys, be serious, we just want to go swim."

Along with the burkini, the group is also pushing to allow boxer trunks in notoriously restrictive French public pools, and for what is known as the "monokini," i.e. going topless.

Two of the community organizers are also in the office. The women, Yasmina and Anissa, both in their early 30s, don't want to give their last names because they've gotten online threats. Anissa says the work all started quite simply four years ago.

"We met some women who felt discriminated against because they couldn't get into the pools due to their hijab and because they couldn't wear a regular bathing suit," she says. "So here they were making picnic lunches for their children and husbands to go to the pool, yet they couldn't join them."

Pool parties help kick off the campaign for burkinis

The women say Grenoble gets very hot in the summer because the surrounding mountains trap the heat. And people depend on the public pools to cool off. They began their campaign with letters and some very positive meetings with local officials. But then nothing happened. So they threw a few pool parties.

In videos of those parties, people are wearing burkinis and bikinis, and are joined by many non-Muslims. The activists sing slogans and splash around in a public pool.

They say it was a positive experience because other swimmers were interested in what they were doing and they were able to tell them about the issue. But other so-called pool parties were less successful. Once they were stopped from entering a pool by police officers who made them "feel like delinquents," Anissa says.

Another time, pool workers called security, who made all the other swimmers get out of the pool.

"That was very violent for us because we had the feeling that we were dirty or something because they wouldn't let other swimmers swim with us," Anissa says.

These women, who both wear the hijab, insist burkinis have nothing to do with Islamist extremism. The mayor agrees. Extremists would never allow their wives to go to a pool, the women explain.

But after two major terrorist attacks in France in 2015 and the beheading of a schoolteacher in 2020 — all by self-avowed Islamist extremists — many French people make a connection between religious dress and possible fundamentalism.

France's 1905 law on secularism guarantees the separation of religion and state and the free practice of all religions. It does not discourage religious expression. Piolle says that since the terrorist attacks people are twisting the law to try to ban religious expression in public.

For Anissa and Yasmina of Alliance Citoyenne, being able to wear a burkini is about having the same rights as everybody else. "That's all we want. Not more rights, just the same as everybody else," Anissa says. "We don't want to be second-class citizens. If we pay taxes we need to have access, like everybody."

The activists say they don't want to Islamicize public pools, as some have charged, or take this issue any further. Both women went to public schools where the hijab is not permitted. "We support secularism and have no problem with that," Anissa says.

Yasmina says people often mix up everything when talking about the veil: "They think our husbands or fathers make us wear it, which is totally false."

People compare them to women in Afghanistan or Iran. Yasmina says France is acting hypocritically, behaving like the dictatorships it criticizes.

"Not letting women wear what they want is as oppressive as forcing women to wear the veil,'' she says. "It's two sides of the same coin: Oppressors who want to impose clothing restrictions on women."

Piolle, the mayor, agrees. "It's crazy when you start to regulate people's clothing in such detail," he says.

It's worth noting that no one seems to bat an eye about allowing topless bathers at swimming pools.

Piolle says he is struck by the absurdity of it all. "We have a climate emergency and a war in Ukraine and the country is focusing on five or 10 women who want to wear a different bathing suit at the swimming pool," he says.

The women from Alliance Citoyenne say they got 2,600 signatures on their petition to allow the burkini when only 50 were required to get a meeting with town officials. Yasmina says they are proud and feel powerful, even if their measure is currently blocked.

"We got this issue on the town council's agenda and are supported by the mayor," Yasmina says. "We are now taken seriously by feminist organizations who didn't consider our struggle feminist at first. These are victories for us and for Grenoble."

Activists are inspired by the U.S. civil rights movement

There's a large poster in the group's offices with a history of civil disobedience across the world. Ben Azib says the group was very inspired by the 1960s U.S. civil rights movement — lunch counter sit-ins and other nonviolent acts of civil disobedience by individuals like Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man.

"It's interesting to see how one single woman — Rosa Parks — can change everything. You know the narrative around black women, the narrative about segregation, etc. It was very inspiring for us," he says.

Ben Azib says they watched videos and studied speeches. "We want to change the way Muslim women are viewed in France," he says.

The court's decision on whether to allow the burkini in Grenoble's pools is expected any day. Ben Azib says if they don't win, they will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

"We need to follow through," he says, "because we spent too much time and energy, and also we have so many people counting on us to keep up the fight."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.