NEW DELHI: An image that has recently gone viral summarises the hypocrisy of the so-called ‘Burkini Ban’ in France better than any article can. In the image, French police are seen instructing a woman wearing a headscarf and a long sleeve top on a beach in Nice to remove layers of clothing.

The woman was given a ticket for not "wearing an outfit respecting good morals and secularism." The woman, though not technically wearing a Burkini -- which is swimwear that is designed to cover rather than reveal -- has become central to the ‘Burkini Ban’ debate that has currently engulfed France. 15 towns have banned the Burkini, and although there is no national ban in place, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has vocally supported the ban.

(This photo of a woman being instructed to take off layers of clothing at a beach in Nice has gone viral).

So significant is the Burkini Ban debate that former French President Nicolas Sarkozy made it a key theme whilst launching his presidential election campaign. “I refuse to let the burkini impose itself at French beaches and swimming pools ... there must be a law to ban it throughout the Republic’s territory,” he said, adding that minorities, immigrants and the Left in France were threatening to destroy French identity.

The opposition to the Burkini is racism, intolerance and Islamophobia posturing as secularism at one level, and patriarchy posturing as secularism at another.

Supporters of the ban maintain that Burkini ban -- like the Burka which was banned in France in 2010 -- protects women from being forced to cover themselves and therefore uphold France’s secular values. This is very argument that Sarkozy had made in 2010 when advocating that Burkas be outlawed in the country.

The irony cannot be lost. France is seeking to liberate women from extremely regressive norms that compel them to wear a piece of clothing by imposing equally regressive laws that prohibit them from wearing the same thing.

This is why the images of the officers instructing the woman to remove layers of clothing at that beach in Nice are so powerful. What right does anyone -- be it religion, a state or another individual -- have to tell a woman what she should or should not wear while relaxing on a beach?

This is not about secularism. It is about telling a woman what to do, and denying her control over her own body. I am vehemently against the regressive culture built by religious morality that compels a woman to hide her face, but I equally against the oppressive efforts of a state and its society to prohibit a woman from wearing something, and worse still, pretending that that hateful, exclusionary and regressive way of thinking is central to the tenets of secularism. It is not.

Another set of viral images tell the other part of the story. Images of nuns on various French beaches have recently gone viral. The nuns are dressed in full habit cavorting on a beach.

If a Burkini on a beach is offensive and against France’s secular ideals, then where is the outrage at Nuns -- dressed as conservatively as can be -- on the beach? Various versions of such photos have been shared.

(Images of conservatively dressed nuns enjoying the beach have been shared in contrast to the Burkini Ban).

The point is that the ‘Burkini Ban’ although coated in convenient garb of secularism is actually Islamophobia at its worst. Take Sarkozy’s recent speech as proof. While advocating the Burkini Ban, the former French President said, “Where is the authority when it is the minorities who govern? Never before has so much been ceded to them.” Sarkozy went on to say that all minorities and immigrants to the country must speak French, and defended a statist response, saying that it is not “fascism” to be concerned about security.

The Burkini Ban, in fact, was instituted first by the Mayor of Cannes on August 12, as a response to the terror attack in Nice in July. The Mayor, while instituting the ban, called Burkinis a “symbol of Islamic extremism.”

Yes, because women - or men - choosing to be covered on the beach is akin to the extremism that drives terrorism. On the contrary, it is the effort to humiliate and ‘other’ an entire that is perhaps more culpable when looking at root cause of extremism and terror.

To give a crude example, it’s like saying that because some Indian men have raped foreign tourists, an Indian man shouldn’t be allowed to wear a lungi on the beach cause a lungi is a “symbol of India’s gender violence.” There is no connection except in the mind of a bigot.

And while this line of thinking is racist, hateful, prejudiced, ignorant and narrow minded, it most certainly not secular. Yet, the Burkini Ban has been upheld and defended in France in the name of secularism.
(Cover Photo: Washington Post)