The brazenly two-faced burkini ban

What France is dissing as backward is the most fashion-forward statement to come out of the Arab world in recent times

A woman in Marseille. Photo: Reuters
A woman in Marseille. Photo: Reuters

I am sitting on the beach in Cannes; or, more precisely, a private portion cordoned off for the use of hotel guests. Three rows of neatly lined up beach chairs stretch into the distance, punctuated with happy sun umbrellas. In front of me, a group of children play in the sea—they are a large noisy family, pre-teen boys and girls watched over by an Indian nanny. It is an idyllic picture of a childhood summer: glorious sun and sea, innocence and joy, exuberance and camaraderie.

I wonder fleetingly why the girls aren’t wearing swimsuits—they are in colour-coordinated cycling pants and lycra T-shirts—and then it occurs to me that they are probably from an Arab country, and this is an abbreviated burkini (sans headscarf) for a 12-year-old girl. I am happy for them, for this is a more progressive garment, with a lot more physical freedom, than I am used to seeing Emirati girls in Dubai (where I live) wear. What’s more, it gives these girls their time in the sun.

The next day, Cannes banned the burkini, assigning a whole bunch of reasons, the most baffling one being that it does not respect “good morals”. In quick succession, nearly 30 French towns imposed similar bans. Last week, in Nice, four armed policemen made a woman take off what looked like a blue kurta, which she had worn over leggings. I cringe at the very thought—I don’t know how I would cope if I was forced to take off clothing in public in a foreign land. For what it is worth, the Cannes ban applies to saris on the beach.

Here’s the irony of it all: What the Cannes mayor is dissing as backward is the most fashion-forward statement from the Arab world that I have seen. He calls the burkini a symbol of women’s enslavement, I think it is a symbol of freedom; freedom from the far more restrictive burqa or abaya. I think the very act of Muslim women choosing to bathe on a public beach with men present is a step forward.

With such strong rhetoric, you would think Cannes was swamped with burkini-clad bathers. The day before the ban, I walked the entire length of the public beach; I saw thousands of bikini-clad women, but not a single burkini. Cannes seems to have banned a nearly non-existent phenomenon.

In fact, the Cannes stance is brazenly two-faced. If I hadn’t known about the burkini brouhaha, I would have said Cannes has been going all out to welcome Arab tourists. For example, at the Carlton hotel’s bar, every table was taken by Arabs. On the terrace restaurant, there were several vacant tables, but all reserved, you guessed it, for Arab guests, “large parties, some of them princes, they usually come later in the evening”, we were told. I kidded with the server that 90% of their guests seem to be Arabs. “No, Madame,” he shot back, “100%.” Which countries? Mostly from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait. More irony here, for these are the three most conservative Arab countries with the strictest dress codes for women.

Cannes seemed to be going the extra mile to make its high-spending Arab guests feel at home. Take the summer menu at the Carlton Bar. It has a good selection of Lebanese mezzes and grilled meats, as also a saffron-and-cardamom spiced sago pudding billed as a “Katara specialty prepared with spices from Qatar”. Outside, on the kerb, sits a red Ferrari with a rent-a-car sign and a poster in Arabic pasted inside the windshield. On the Martinez hotel beach there’s a tastefully done up hookah counter. In the densely packed marina, there are plenty of breathtaking boats with names like Mashallah.

The dominance of Arabs was evident at my hotel beach too. On my right were two young men, in swimming shorts, very overweight. On the beach chairs beyond were another two young men, with six empty beer bottles on their table. On my left was a very slim, perfect-beach-body lady in a tiny bikini. I assumed she was French, until she started talking in Arabic. So much for stereotyping. Turns out she is from Lebanon, in her mid-50s, holidaying for a week in Cannes with her daughter, works out every day in the gym for 2 hours. “Don’t you?” she asked me, looking at my one-piece swimsuit doing its best to camouflage non-existent abs.

Cannes is the steam-release mechanism of the pressure cooker that is life back home in Saudi Arabia or Qatar or elsewhere. Dress codes are relaxed. For example, eight out of 10 women at the Carlton Bar did not wear a headscarf, and there was just one woman with an abaya. This would be unthinkable back home. On the Croisette, the main promenade flanking the sea, there are groups of young women strolling along; but again, most don’t sport headscarves or abayas.

That’s the unspoken deal that Cannes and the rich Arab tourist have struck: The city makes money hand-over-fist, and the Arabs enjoy the good life with relatively relaxed codes. This has been going on for years. But suddenly the city is breaking its part of the pact by singling out Muslims and hitting out at the harmless burkini. It’s wrong on so many fronts, but even for Cannes it makes no business sense.

Deep pockets, it seems, are appreciated, as long as they are not inside a burkini.

(P.S.: A French court has ruled against the ban since this column was written.)

Radha Chadha, one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts, is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

Also Read: Radha’s previous Lounge columns

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