What the Burkini Ban Says about World Media

Published: 5 September 2016

Region: Worldwide

Burkini_and_BikiniBurkini ban on French Riviera caused a worldwide public debate and some memorable responses and posts on social media. Outrage started when armed policemen forced a woman on a Nice beach to remove her burkini, a full length swimsuit. The same ban had previously been introduced in other French cities because, as the mayor of Cannes David Lisner explained, “burkinis are a symbol of Islamic extremism and are not respectful of good morals and secularism.” After strong public reaction, France’s highest administrative court has ruled that burkini ban is “clearly illegal and a violation of fundamental liberties such as the freedom of movement, freedom of conscience and personal liberty”.

But how did the world media cover the burkini ban in France? Who did journalists talk to and whose voice was missing from the media coverage?

Most of the mainstream media, as well as news agencies, included information about the truck driver attack in Nice that killed more than 80 people in their reports about the burkini ban. The link between “Islamic terrorism” as stressed by some media, and the way women are dressed on the beach is evident for some officials, right-wing politicians and some tabloids. But not so many media challenged this type of rhetoric.

On the other hand, the photos of French policemen and a woman in burkini “will fuel years of jihadist propaganda,” claims David Thomson, a French journalist who tracks jihadi activity online, in an interview for France TV Info. “The jihadist narrative has insisted for years that it is impossible for a Muslim to practice their religion with dignity in France,” said Thompson.

BurkiniSome major media outlets such as the BBC and the New York Times, made sure they included voices of Muslim women in their coverage, but they featured them in separate articles titled along the lines “What Muslim Women think?”

“Many women wrote that anti-Muslim bias had intensified after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015, and in BrusselsParis and Nice more recently. Halima Djalab Bouguerra, a 21-year-old student in Bourg-en-Bresse, France, dated the change further back, to the killings by Mohammed Merah in the southwest of the country in 2012. ‘The way people look at us has changed,’ Ms. Bouguerra wrote. ‘Tongues have loosened. No one is afraid of telling a Muslim to ‘go back home’ anymore,” said Bouguerra for the New York Times.

Criticising “sensationalist global headlines about protecting national security and women’s lives” on the French Riviera, the Conversation points out that there is a reinforcement of “tired stereotypes about Muslim women”. “Whether talking about mandatory face-veils in war-torn Syria, or voluntary burkinis in French resorts, the media’s language about Muslim women appears strikingly similar. Muslim women are portrayed as universally oppressed and in need of intervention from Western saviours,” reports the Conversation.

Providing a background analysis on what lies behind the burkini controversy, Executive Director of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) Sanam Naraghi Anderlini wrote in the Guardian that the burkini ban was a distraction from the real issues at the root of the debate”. She asks why it took the French authorities 20 years before questioning the Saudi funding of mosques and why they don’t tackle the problem of jihadi recruitment in French prisons.

“Second, supporters of the burkini ban claimed it was a fight for women against oppression; that this – together with its precursor, the hijab ban – was symbolic of the French government’s chivalrous defence of women’s liberation. Setting aside the obvious fact that liberation means we, as women, choose what we wear, say and do as freely as men, the question that comes to mind is: how consistent is France in its defence of women’s rights?

The answer, sadly, is murky. Just last year, President Hollande committed $15.3bn of direct foreign investment in Saudi Arabia, becoming the country’s third largest investor. Saudi Arabia is the country where women cannot drive, or open bank accounts, or show their face in public. Even foreign women cannot swim. Liberté and egalité for women be damned, it seems, where money is involved,” wrote Sanam Naraghi Anderlini for the Guardian.