France has long had a firm stance on secularism, which it has staunchly upheld come rain or… controversy.
Some examples of the country’s enforcement of these secular ideals have been interpreted as Islamophobic – and even sexist - such as the 2010 county-wide banning of the full-face veil.
The latest furore has been steadily building since local authorities in Cannes and Nice announced a ban on burkinis- the burqua-inspired swimwear worn by many Muslim women in their pursuit of religious modesty. This week, a photograph of armed police surrounding a woman on the beach in Nice whilst they appear to force her to remove the garment, has circulated online for its extreme nature.
The ban - rather than dividing people - seems to have brought people together, with purchases of the garments soaring to 200% in a show of sisterhood. This weekend, there are even planned protests at the draconian measure across London - with one at the French embassy today.
Now, the designer of the burkini has spoken out about the situation, writing a powerful essay in The Guardian.
Australian-based Aheda Zanetti has expressed her sadness at the situation, and explains that she created the garment in 2004 to “give women freedom, not to take it away.”
Zanetti uses the article to question who is better, “the Taliban or French politicians?”
Answering herself, that “They are as bad as each other.”
The designer explains the process she went through before she came up with the garment, describing how her hijab-wearing nieces struggled to partake in sports, and were left out of teams, and eventually resorted to wearing so many layers of clothing that they were hugely uncomfortable and overheated.
Researching activewear for Muslim women in Australia, Zanetti found nothing, so took it into her own hands, and sat down to design something. As an Australian, she explains, sports is integral to her life and she wanted a garment that would enable hijab-wearing Muslims to partake.
Eventually, after examining the veil and its function to “cover your hair and your shape,” Zanetti came up with the burkini – a portmanetau, she says, that means: “a kind of coat and cover-all, and at the other end you had the bikini.”
Although the garment was met with trepidation when she pitched it to the local Islamic community, Zanetti launched it, nonetheless.
Interestingly, the burkini made it's first biggest splash when Nigella Lawson spotted wearing one on the beach in 2011.
For Zanetti, the burkini has always been about “integration and acceptance and being equal and about not being judged.”
She also presses that the garment was designed for, not just Muslim women, but all women, saying:
“I wanted to do something positive – and anyone can wear this, Christian, Jewish, Hindus. It’s just a garment to suit a modest person, or someone who has skin cancer, or a new mother who doesn’t want to wear a bikini.”
Zanetti describes how she felt when she first tested her burkini at her local swimming pool, and the elation she felt when it worked:
“I remember that everyone was staring at me – what was I wearing? I went right to the end of the pool and got on the diving board and dived in. The headband stayed in place, and I thought, beauty! Perfect!
“It was my first time swimming in public and it was absolutely beautiful. I remember the feeling so clearly. I felt freedom, I felt empowerment, I felt like I owned the pool. I walked to the end of that pool with my shoulders back.”
But following the attacks of September 11 2001, Zanetti recalls the increasing Islamphobic backlash Muslims have faced.
For Zanetti, though, the burkini was never intended as a symbol of Islam – explaining how even the burqa is not a requirement of the religion, or mentioned in the Qur’an.
Expressing her sadness at the new burkini ban in France, the designer explains how the garment has been misinterpreted, saying:
“I think they have misunderstood a garment that is so positive – it symbolises leisure and happiness and fun and fitness and health.”
“You’ve taken a product that symbolised happiness and joyfulness and fitness, and turned it into a product of hatred,” she writes.
Questioning the reasoning behind the ban – that the burkini does not align with ‘french values’, Zanetti says:
“Also, what are the French values? What do you mean it doesn’t combine with French values, what does that mean? Liberty? You telling us what to wear, you telling us what not to do will drive women back into their homes – what do you want us to do then?”
French courts are currently in the process of considering an overturn of the ban.
Read the full essay here