Muslim women have pushed back against a ban on burkinis, a full-body swimsuit, at a public pool in the French southeastern city of Grenoble, in bid to defy growing Islamophobia and discrimination in the country.
"Operation burkini" was launched last month by members of the group Citizen Alliance of Grenoble to defend what they say is the right of Muslim women. The women are demanding that public pools, which currently require men to wear swim briefs and women to wear bikinis or one-piece swimsuits, change their regulations to accommodate burkini wearers.
France has the largest Muslim minority in Europe, estimated at 5 million or more out of a population of 67 million. The place of religion and religious symbols worn in public can be a matter of controversy in the staunchly secular country. For years, rights groups have argued that France's secular laws foster Islamophobia and discriminate against Muslim women.
Far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen criticized the protesters and called for a firm response from local authorities. "It's time to say loud and clear that the burkini has no place in France," she tweeted on Monday. The center-right head of the greater Paris region, Valerie Pecresse, also warned against normalizing full-body swimsuits. "If we accept the burkini, in a few years, all the young girls from poor neighborhoods will be bathing covered up, for moral reasons or to protect their reputations," she told Radio Classique. Enforcing traditional swimsuits was necessary to "leave women free," she argued.
The burkini remains controversial in France as the country has been embroiled in a row over bans on the burkini in resorts around the Riviera. In the summer of 2016, several French seaside towns banned the body-covering burkini swimsuit worn by some Muslim women, arguing that the garment defied French laws on secularism and was causing public unrest. Since then, French Muslims have growing concerns, saying that decisions taken by some municipal authorities to ban the burkini could lead to further stigmatization of Muslims.
In 2010, France was the first country in Europe to ban full-face veils, such as the burqa and the niqab, in public places. In the country, civil servants cannot wear hair-covering veils during working hours and face-covering veils are banned for everybody in public space. Items of clothing seen as asserting a religious identity often spark controversy, even if legal.