LAST WEEK, FRENCH PRESIDENT Francois Hollande payed his respects to the late fashion designer Sonia Rykiel, praising her clothing for having “offered women freedom of movement.” France is now banning an item of clothing designed to do exactly that.
As responsible travelers, the burkini ban is an issue we should feel strongly about — upholding human rights is a pillar of the responsible tourism movement and the world’s biggest tourism destination appears to be taking a backward step by restricting women’s right to adhere to their own religious beliefs and cover up on the beach.
How we dress when we travel is a key issue in responsible tourism, especially for women. Should we cover up? How do we ensure we don’t offend our host communities? It’s something that, as the boss of a responsible travel company, I talk about a lot. And when it comes to responsible tourism we don’t necessarily support the ‘Wear what you want’ message the protesters outside French embassies in the UK were extolling yesterday — instead we advise that we should dress to respect local cultural traditions.
You could argue that the cultural traditions of France don’t include the burkini. And indeed, France is outspokenly a secular country — ‘la laicite’ is as fundamental part of its constitution — but it is also a country with a deep respect for women’s rights. Those against the burkini argue that it is a symbol of oppression against women. But it’s not: the burkini was, in the same spirit as Sonia Rykiel, specifically designed to give women freedom — giving them access to enjoy the beach and the sea whatever the restrictions of their religious beliefs. What’s particularly secular about attempting to dictate what a woman’s religious beliefs should be? How is that level of paternalism compatible with a respect for women’s independence and her basic human rights? And how can we be responsible travelers if we refuse to acknowledge a woman’s autonomy?
John Dalhuisen, the Europe Director of Amnesty International, commented, “The French authorities should drop the pretence that these measures do anything to protect the rights of women. Rather, invasive and discriminatory measures such as these restrict women’s choices, violate their rights and lead to abuse…These bans do nothing to increase public safety, but do a lot to promote public humiliation.”
An estimated 86.3 million tourists visited France in 2015, almost 6 million more than the USA. As a tourism destination with global appeal it could have real power to share a message of tolerance, to hold itself up as a champion of women’s rights irrespective of religious belief or cultural background. While the French courts ruled last week that burkini bans were not legal, many local mayors are defying the court order, and are continuing the bans. I hope that its authorities will follow the advice of Amnesty and other human rights organizations fighting the burkini ban and give back to its women the freedom to bathe in peace.