The “burkini ban” recently implemented in a number of French cities has become a topic of global controversy this week after images spread online of a woman being forced by a group of male police officers to remove her clothing at a beach in Nice.
But really, the French debate over Islamic clothing has been going on for years.
Hijabs were banned from public schools in 2004, along with other “ostentatious” religious articles, including large Christian crosses and the Jewish kippa. In 2007, full-face Islamic veils were banned from public places in France. In recent months, a number of French cities have issued their own bans on the burkini, a type of swimwear that covers most of the body.
To many outsiders, however, there are a number of confounding facts surrounding the burqa and burkini bans. Here are just a few.
1. The burqa was extremely rare in France before it was banned.
In 2009, as France moved to ban the full-face veil, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the burqa a symbol of “debasement” that was “not welcome” in the country. The French Interior Ministry’s estimates suggested that only a few, if any, French women wore the burqa.
The burqa describes a type of veil worn mostly in Afghanistan and South Asia. It is a single piece of cloth that covers the entire body with usually only a thin mesh for the woman to see out of. What you are more likely to see in Europe are niqabs, a veil more popular in Gulf states that usually covers the bottom half of the face and leaves the area around the eyes open.
The Interior Ministry estimated that just 2,000 French women wore the niqab (for reference, France’s Muslim population is now estimated at 7.5 million) and some think that even that estimate was faulty and potentially too high.
Germany now seems to be following in France’s footsteps. Despite a proposed ban on full-face veils and one prominent politician calling himself a “burqaphobe”.
2. Those who receive fines tend to be repeat offenders.
It doesn’t seem like the ban acts as a great deterrent. Women still wear the niqab in France. French data from 2015 showed that 1,546 fines had been imposed under the law — even though police have stopped short of fully implementing the law due to concerns about public order.
More confoundingly, of these women who were charged, many were repeat offenders.
French law imposes a far heavier fine on any man who forces a woman to wear a full-face veil, there are no signs that anyone has ever been prosecuted for this act.
3. A single businessman has paid off a large number of the fines.
French women can face fines of 150 euros ($167) for wearing the full-face veil in public. However, a businessman named Rachid Nekkaz claims to have paid at least 1,165 fines in France so far, as well as a further 268 in Belgium, two in the Netherlands and one in Switzerland. The total cost, Nekkaz says, is around 245,000 euros ($278,000) with attorneys fees.
4. The number of women who wear the full-face veil has actually increased in France since the bans were implemented.
Some experts say that the law has actually propelled more women to wear the veil rather than discouraged it.
5. The burkini was invented in Australia
The burkini did not originate in Afghanistan. In fact, given that it is a two-piece garment that doesn’t cover the face, it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the burqa in general.
The burkini’s origin can be traced to Australia, where it was created by a woman named Aheda Zanetti in the early 2000s.
6. Non-Muslim women wear burkinis, too.
The burkini isn’t just for Muslims. “We’ve sold to Jews, Hindus, Christians, Mormons, women with various body issues. We’ve had men asking for them, too,” Zanetti explained.
Some non-Muslim celebrities have been photographed wearing similar outfits to the beach: In 2011, British chef and television personality Nigella Lawson was spotted wearing one during a holiday to Australia. The outfit was created by a British brand called Modesty Active and Lawson later said that she wore it to protect her skin. Other companies, such as Aqua Modesta, also create similar garments for Orthodox Jewish women.
7. Extremist groups have tried to use France’s burqa ban as a recruitment tool.
A number of French citizens have noted that the photographs shot in Nice this week might serve as a recruitment tool for the Islamic State.
Extremist groups have already used France’s ban of full-face veils as justification for attacks. The very first issue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine included an article titled “The West Should Ban the Niqab Covering Its Real Face.” De Feo says that at least one of the French women she knows who started wearing the veil after the 2011 ban eventually headed to Syria to join a jihadist group.