Marie DHUMIERES - Before Wendy bought her first burkini this summer, the 22-year-old French Muslim convert would dress up in leggings, a tennis skirt and a T-shirt to enjoy days at the beach.

“I usually wear a normal headscarf, I don’t hide my face. I don’t see why I should wear a bikini when I am on holiday, it makes no sense,” she told AFP in a telephone interview.

The law student from the northern city of Lille is one of several Muslim women who say they feel further stigmatised by a ban on the full-body swimsuit on some French beaches. The action has created a furore in the fiercely secular nation which has been hit by a string of militant attacks.

France’s highest administrative court, the State Council, will on Thursday examine a request by the Human Rights League (LDH) to scrap the ban, enforced on some 15 beaches in the country.

Lower courts have supported the decision by French mayors, with a tribunal in the Riviera city of Nice - where a crowd was mowed down in July in a grisly truck attack - said the burkini could “be felt as a defiance or a provocation exacerbating tensions felt by” the community.

The swimsuit - much like a wetsuit but with a head covering - was designed by Australian Aheda Zanetti and has grown in popularity in recent years. The designer told AFP this week that many orders are from non-Muslims, including survivors of skin cancer.

‘I just want to swim in peace’

While some French see the outfit as a glaring display of religious convictions - which goes against cherished values separating religion and public life - those who wear it see it as a matter of practicality. “I didn’t want to go into the water with clothes on, it would damage them,” laughed Wendy. “I just want to swim in peace.”

Wendy described as “ridiculous” the debate which has further polarised France as it struggles to contain rising Islamophobia that has resulted from the string of terror attacks.

The burkini ban has also created confusion: is it the trademarked swimsuit itself that is the problem, or merely being fully clothed on the seashore?

In France, which counts a population of five million Muslims, burkinis are extremely rare and only a minority of Muslim women remain covered on beaches. A mother of two told AFP on Tuesday she had been fined on the beach in the resort of Cannes for wearing leggings, a tunic and a headscarf. Her ticket, seen by AFP, read that she was not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”.

“I was sitting on a beach with my family. I was wearing a classic headscarf. I had no intention of swimming,” said the 34-year-old who gave only her first name, Siam. A witness to the scene, journalist Mathilde Cusin, confirmed the incident.

“The saddest thing was that people were shouting ‘go home’, some were applauding the police. Her daughter was crying,” she told AFP.

‘Problems for nothing’

France was the first European country to ban the Islamic face veil in public in 2010, six years after outlawing the headscarf and other conspicuous religious symbols in state schools.

However ordinary citizens are allowed to wear the headscarf in public. Lamia, a friend of Wendy’s who did not give her last name, grew up in the northern French coastal town of Dunkerque. She remembers going to the sea as a child, with her mother dressed in a long black dress.

“It would stay wet, and get full of sand. The burkini merely makes it easier for Muslims who have always swum fully clothed,” she told AFP.

Lamia said she was angry at an “opportunistic” debate which would “create problems for nothing.” “Fundamentalists, extremists, think the beach is for infidels. They will not go and swim on the Cannes beach surrounded by topless women ,” she said. Lamia said those who wear the burkini are “free in their choices and just want to enjoy their holidays”.

However she believes the name of the swimsuit should be changed as “it has a derogatory connotation because of the burqa”, the full-face veil. Tatiana, a saleswoman in an Islamic fashion store in Paris, also disapproves of the name of the outfit.

She said most of her clients were “mothers, who just want to play in the water with their children”.

Viral photos add fuel to French burkini debate

An angry debate over a ban on burkinis in France was further stoked Wednesday as images of a veiled woman surrounded by police on a beach in Nice went viral.

The series of photos published by British media showed a woman dressed in leggings, a tunic and headscarf lying on a beach surrounded by four police officers.

At one point the woman removes her tunic - it is unclear if she was ordered to do so or did so of her own accord - while a policeman appears to write out a fine. The photos, whose source is not clear, caused a furore on Twitter, where many interpreted them as the woman being forced to undress by police.

Underneath the tunic, she was wearing a sleeveless top. “Question of the day: How many armed policemen does it take to force a woman to strip in public?” Andrew Stroehlein, European Media Director of Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter.

A comment by an activist named Sihame Assbague, retweeted more than 7,000 times, said the scene has made France “the laughing stock of the world”. “I am so ashamed”, wrote French feminist Caroline De Haas. The hashtag #WTFFrance was trending on French Twitter. Nice is one of about 15 French towns which has banned the wearing of the burkini - a full-body Islamic swimsuit which covers the head - on beaches, with authorities declaring it to contravene French secular values and threaten public order.

But the vague wording of the bans, which refer to beachwear that conspicuously demonstrate a person’s religion has created confusion. Beachgoers have been left to puzzle over whether it refers solely to head-to-toe swimwear, which some non-Muslims wear for protection from the sun, or to being fully clothed and having one’s head covered on the seashore.

A mother of two told AFP on Tuesday she had been fined on the beach in the resort of Cannes for wearing leggings, a tunic and a headscarf.

“I was sitting on a beach with my family. I was wearing a classic headscarf. I had no intention of swimming,” said the 34-year-old who gave only her first name, Siam. France’s highest administrative court, the State Council, will on Thursday examine a request by the Human Rights League (LDH) to scrap the ban, enforced on some 15 beaches in the country.

The head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) will meet Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve on Wednesday to discuss the burkini bans at the centre of a bitter row over Muslim integration. The CFCM “is concerned over the direction the public debate is taking,” the president of the body, Anouar Kbibech, said in a statement calling for an urgent meeting with Cazeneuve, citing the “growing fear of stigmatisation of Muslims in France”.

The interior ministry later announced the meeting would take place on Wednesday afternoon.

Kbibech noted that a few days ago a woman was fined on a beach in Cannes while wearing a simple headscarf and accompanied by her children.–AFP