A woman wears a burkini on the beach. Photo: Wikipedia A woman wears a burkini on the beach. Photo: Wikipedia

As France imposes this draconian ban, Lindsey German states why we must say no – clearly and unequivocally

It used to be that conservative politicians objected to women taking too many of their clothes off. You could be banned for wearing a bikini in a number of countries, including parts of the US, France and Italy. In Franco’s Spain right up until the early 70s you could be accosted by gun toting Guardia Civil if you didn’t cover yourself up.

Fast forward 40 years and the police are back on the beach again. This time they are fining and humiliating women for covering themselves up too much. According to a number of French mayors, women can’t be allowed to wear the burkini, which covers their bodies. A variety of reasons are given for this: it has connotations with terrorism, it is unhygienic, it is a symbol of oppression. 

So we have had the spectacle of women being surrounded by police, issued with fines, made to take off garments, face humiliation in front of their children, and find themselves surrounded by hostile members of the public. 

These are some of the most shameful episodes in the treatment of Muslim women in France that I can recall. They are state sponsored bullying and racism pure and simple. Islamophobia is only one form of racism, although it is the major one in Europe today. But it is the only one which targets the behaviour and dress of women in particular, and tried to alter this behaviour in the most draconian way.

State Islamophobia is being driven by concerns to appease the far right parties across Europe, and has now been taken up by the main left and right parties in countries such as Germany and France. Both face national elections next year and we can be certain that these issues will be to the fore.

France has a bad record on this, with successive hijab bans in schools and public office. The burkini ban takes it to a new low. Justifications for it claim that it is a response to recent terror attacks by Muslims. But that is an excuse. There is a long history of racism towards Muslims, mainly of Arab origin in France, which dates back to France’s colonial past, and especially to the bloody war with Algeria which eventually ended in the latter country’s indepedence. 

Many of the white settlers there settled in the South of France, where right wing politics are strong. The fascist FN is particularly strong in the area.
France has also been increasingly strongly involved in interventions in Muslim countries, most notably Syria and Libya, which have led to increases in the level of terrorism. 

The left everywhere should oppose these bans and the demonisation that accompanies them. We always, rightly, hark back to the events in Germany in the 1930s and 40s as a warning to where racism can take us. Let’s remember there were many small steps which led to the Holocaust, including increasingly restrictive laws against Jews. When I visited Berlin last month, I went to the beach at one of its largest lakes, the Wannsee, where its history records that Jews were banned from bathing there from 1938. 

Is this the road that Europe is moving down again? Those of us who oppose Islamophobia and racism have to say no very loudly indeed. 

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.