A Muslim women’s association with 200 members in north Marseille has sparked a national controversy by organising a “burkini day” in a privately-owned aquatic centre.
"All we wanted was to spend a good day among women with our kids," Melisa Thivet (33), a Muslim convert and the founder of Smile 13 told Le Monde. The association encourages veiled women to go outside their homes more.
Smile 13 is an acronym for “Marseille sisters who initiate leisure and mutual help”. Thirteen is the postal code for the Bouches-du-Rhône department.
Smile 13 intended to rent the Speed Water Park in the small town of Les Pennes-Mirabeau, half-way between Marseille and Aix-en-Provence, for the entire day of Saturday, September 10th, at a cost of nearly €15,000. With an entrance fee of €15, they would have to attract 1,000 women to break even.
The poster invitation was posted on Facebook and has been reproduced in numerous French newspapers since. It says, "I'm counting on you to respect the AWRA (the Koranic term for 'intimate parts') and so not to come in a two-piece. (Parts must be hidden from the chest to the knees.) The minimum is a one-piece with a pareo or shorts."
Boys up to the age of 10 will be allowed to attend with their mothers. The presence of male lifeguards was given as the reason for the necessity for women to cover themselves.
Le Figaro, which used the controversy to denounce the "creeping Islamisation" of France in a front-page editorial, was scandalised that the programme includes "swimming, super 8 or suicide toboggans, waterfalls . . . "
Local politicians from the mainstream Les Républicains (LR) and far right Front National (FN) parties first raised the alarm. Valérie Boyer, the LR deputy for the Bouches-du-Rhône, denounced "unbearable sectarian acts," adding that "to accept this so-called fashion would fan sectarianism in our country, but it's also a question of the dignity of women".
Stéphane Ravier, an FN senator and mayor of a Marseille district said, “This Islamic day shows that . . . a certain number of Muslims voluntarily cut themselves off from our Republican model, by placing themselves on the margins of our society.”
Mr Ravier said he was “shocked but not surprised” because he witnesses “every day the growing advance of sectarianism, for example through the proliferation in the streets of Marseille of Islamic dress”.
After Boyer and Ravier complained, the left-wing mayor mayor of Les Pennes-Mirabeau, Michel Amiel, told Le Parisien newspaper that he intends to ban the women's swimming party. "I am making a municipal decree forbidding this event because it represents a threat to public order," Amiel said.
To be binding, the decree must be approved by the prefect of police, who has so far refused to state his position. If the prefect allows the swimming party, Amiel said, he will appeal to a judge.
“I consider this event a provocation that we don’t need in the present context,” Amiel said, alluding to jihadist attacks that have claimed 88 lives in France since June. “This is hardcore sectarianism,” he added.
In a communique, the FN said the case “casts light on the Islamist infiltration of civil society”.
Muslim associations that constitute “Islamism in disguise” are “proliferating in France,” the extreme right-wing party said.
The FN denounced Smile 13 for teaching Arabic for Koranic study, and for organising activities in connection with Ramadan. It demanded that local authorities certify Smile 13 receives no public subsidies (it does not) and called on the government to undertake “a census of all sectarian associations”.
The socialist senator from Marseille Samia Ghali came to the defence of the women, saying she was "sickened by this political controversy which aims to stigmatise Muslims yet again . . . This is to take place in a private place, without public subsidies. What right do they have to prevent people from swimming as they want to?"
France banned headscarves in schools in 2004, and full-face veils in public in 2010. Last spring, Laurence Rossignol, the minister for women's rights, criticised Marks and Spencer for marketing burkini swimsuits in Britain.
Requests for separate male and female swimming times and attempts by Muslim women to swim covered in public pools have long been a source of tension.