Protesters took to the streets against “burkini” bans today, Friday, as a constitutional stand-off developed in France over whether they would continue to be implemented.
Hundreds gathered outside the French embassy in London for a demonstration called by Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) and Muslim Engagement and Development. They chanted, “Say it loud, say it clear, Muslims must not live in fear” and “Our bodies our lives, our right to decide.”
Many of the protesters were young Muslim women, such as student Enaab. She told Socialist Worker, “It’s the hypocrisy that really gets me. People look at me with pity, saying I must have been forced to wear my headscarf. But it’s this law that’s forcing women to dress a certain way.”
Almost 20 French resorts have banned bathers from covering their bodies in ways judged “ostentatiously” in breach of customs. This has been used against Muslim women in burkinis, tops and even hijabs.
France’s top constitutional court today ruled that the bans were “clearly and seriously illegal”, upholding a complaint from the Collective Against Islamophobia in France and the League of Human Rights.
The decision was an embarrassment for Labour-type prime minister Manuel Valls, who had echoed the hard right’s rhetoric to defend the bans. Four ministers had already distanced themselves from his comments.
On the London demonstration, SUTR joint secretary Weyman Bennett said, “That has happened because of the outrage at what is happening.”
Smaller protests took place in Manchester and Birmingham.
In Birmingham, Amina told Socialist Worker, “Forcing women to uncover is no better than forcing women to cover up. Once they’re telling us how to dress, what next—how to eat? You already hear complaints against halal food—will they ban that?”
“The horrifying thing is that this is a country just across the Channel from Britain. If that becomes the norm over there, could it end up happening here? It’s really scary.”
Around 50 women held a “beach party” protest outside the embassy on Thursday, as 300 activists defied the ban in southern France.
They were attending the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) annual summer school in Port-Leucate—one of the first localities to ban burkinis. They went in the sea fully clothed, with banners saying “no to Islamophobia” and “no to the burkini ban”, then marched on the mayor’s office.
Forcing women to uncover is no better than forcing women to cover up
NPA activist Sellouma told Socialist Worker, “We were up in arms about the way Muslim women are being treated and this indignation is what pushed us to action.”
The mayor of Leucate was one of at least four to vow on Friday that they would uphold the ban in defiance of the court ruling.
This is part of a broader, long term Islamophobic offensive that goes right to the top—and not just in France. The Prevent strategy in Britain has seen young children questioned over supposed risks of extremism.
On the London demonstration, student Haadiya said, “As Muslims we face Islamophobia from all around us. A lot of people are afraid to speak out for fear of being seen as ‘extreme’. So it’s really important we take a stand when they try to limit our freedom of speech.”
The ruling against the burkini bans is a victory. But it is only a start. Building on it could start to turn the tide.
Weyman underlined the importance of the coming SUTR conference on Saturday 8 October. “We can win this if we stand together,” he said. “We need everyone here to become a leader of SUTR in their workplace or school.”
In Manchester, SUTR organiser Nahella Ashraf said, “The protest wasn’t huge, but we had lots of young women saying they wanted to get involved.”
Sellouma said, “The pressure to act came from Muslim activists who were the first to move. It will take united work to beat these discriminatory laws. In the days ahead we need to think about how to go on the offensive against Islamophobia.”