Muslim women sporting burkinis on French beaches faced harassment from law enforcement this weekend, despite a Friday ruling in which the country’s highest court forcefully defended their right to the swimwear. The court called burkini bans—which bar from the beach anyone in the full-body suit favored by some observant Muslim women—“a serious and clearly illegal blow to fundamental freedoms of movement, freedom of conscience, and personal liberty.” But so far, local authorities in Nice have vowed to “continue to fine” anyone caught wearing one, according to the Agence France-Presse.*
The ruling only suspended a single law, in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, but its unequivocal language suggests that all such prohibitions will ultimately be overturned. Local authorities in Nice and Frejus, on the Côte d'Azur, and in the Corsican town of Sisco were the first to announce that their bans would nevertheless remain in place. BuzzFeed reporter Aisha Gani, reporting from the ground in Nice this weekend, observed that notices warning beach-goers against “beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation”—which had been removed as controversy mounted this week—were reposted around town on Friday. On Saturday afternoon, two women wearing veils were forced to leave the seashore, according to Federation of Muslims in the South spokeswoman Feiza Ben Mohamed. Ben Mohamed also tweeted footage of a Nice police boat approaching a veiled woman wading in the shallows and apparently ordering her out of the water.
As the New York Times’ Amanda Taub has written, France’s fixation with the Muslim veil dates back to colonial rule in Algeria, where promises to liberate women were used to justify the actions of a brutal regime. This summer, renewed Islamophobia has coalesced in the fight over the burkini—a symbol, for some French people, of how their Muslim neighbors refuse to assimilate into the culture that gave the world the bikini.
Roughly 30 of France's coastal towns have enacted laws against bathers in burkinis. Some cited public safety as a justification after townspeople in Sisco brawled with a group of Moroccan tourists; others have argued that allowing women to cover up in the ocean somehow violates the dictates of “hygiene.” Outrage reached a new peak last week when police in Nice stood over a woman in a turquoise burkini and—as shown in a series of photographs that quickly went viral—ordered her to remove her tunic.
France’s highest court dismissed the notion that burkinis could threaten public order—or that the compulsory baring of women’s flesh could serve the interests and values of liberty. Writing last week, my colleague Christina Cauterucci called the ruling “a much-needed beacon of rational justice.” It's also a signal that bans up and down the coastline are vulnerable to legal challenges. Marwan Muhammad, the executive director of the Center Against Islamophobia in France, told BuzzFeed that his group is determined to topple them. “We will sue them in every single case,” he said. “Until they abide by the law.”
Correction, Aug. 29, 2016: This post originally misidentified Agence France-Presse as Agence French-Presse.