The burkini ban and human rights

A Tunisian woman wearing a 'burkini' walks at beach Bizerte, north-eastern Tunis, Tunisia, 28 August 2016. EPA

YOU may have read news about the “burkini ban” controversy in some French towns.

The “burkini” is a type of swimwear that covers the whole body of the wearer, except for the hands and feet. It was designed for the Muslim female who wants to wear something light that can be used for swimming, yet at the same time is in accordance with the traditional Islamic concept of modesty.

The controversy began when the town of Cannes prohibited the use of the burkini. The reasons given were that the clothing has a possible link to “Islamic extremism”. Other towns in France followed suit and imposed a similar ban.

This resulted in fines issued against many women for wearing the burkini.

The accusation was that they did not wear “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”, the bedrock of the French republic. Meanwhile, the mayor of the town of Nice claimed that the wearing of the burkini to be an “unacceptable provocative act”.

Politicians followed suit, joining the chorus of irrationality against the wearing of the swimwear. There were also reports of women being forced to take off the burkini in public with the ban extended to other types of “modest attire”.

Of course, many have criticised and slammed the law. Indeed, the claim that there is a link between extremism and the burkini is not only ridiculous, but bellies a deep prejudice of Islam. It is also another instance of men telling women what they should or should not wear, not unlike how the Taliban forced women to wear the burqa.

Many argue that the ban violates the human rights of the wearer. What one wears is part of one’s freedom of speech and expression, for example. To restrict or deny human rights, there must be justifiable reasons. Looking at the reasons given thus far, it can be concluded they are untenable.

The towns that banned the burkini would certainly have the jurisdiction and power to do so. But human rights transcend national laws. Human rights cannot be extinguished by the laws of a country. It is inherent within all human beings and ensures that the rights of the minorities are protected from the tyranny of the majority.

The burkini ban is being challenged on human rights grounds. The highest administrative court in France has suspended the ban in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet on grounds that it “seriously and clearly illegally breached fundamental freedoms”. A final decision on the legality of the ban will be decided later.

Closer to home, we have also seen instances of local councils imposing rules on what can and cannot be worn in public, citing decency and morality as reasons. Can parallels not be drawn to the situation in France with the burkini ban?

Ironically, there are those who support moral policing in Malaysia but condemn the burkini ban in France.

If we are to argue that the burkini ban as well as the ban against minarets in Switzerland, Donald Trump’s suggestion to prohibit Muslims from coming to the United States and the actions of Israeli soldiers in occupied territories are all violations, we should also similarly demand that our authorities respect and uphold human rights.

The Muslim minorities in France and Switzerland are as entitled to human rights as the minorities in Malaysia.

It would be hypocritical to decry the violations of religious freedoms in other countries, but at the same time claim that “human rights is incompatible with Islam” or that religious freedoms of minorities must be subjected to “sensitivities” of the majority. Human rights are universal.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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