Zeynab Alshelh donned a blue burkini and walked onto a beach in southeastern France. The 23-year-old medical student had crossed 10,000 miles, flying with her family from her home in Sydney, Australia, to Europe, to reach the sands of Villeneuve-Loubet.
Her journey, she said, had been fueled by just one goal: to stand in solidarity with local Muslims after dozens of resorts in the French riviera banned the burkini, a kind of full-body swimsuit, earlier this summer.
The burkini ban in Villeneuve-Loubet was overruled in August by the country’s top administrative court. But that, as footage of Alshelh’s time in the resort town shows, did not stop beachgoers from chasing her away and threatening her with police action.
“I just wanted to see it for myself. I just wanted to see what is going on here,” Alshelh told Channel 7, an Australian TV network that filmed her experience on the French beach. “Why is this happening? I wanted to speak to the girls that have gone through all this stuff. Hopefully [there’s something] we can do to help these girls just live a normal life.”
In the Channel 7 clip above, Alshelh and her mother are seen dressed in burkinis, relaxing on the Villeneuve-Loubet beach.
A few strangers look at them disapprovingly. One woman gives the thumbs-down gesture; then a man tells the group that he’ll call the police if they refuse to leave.
“They weren’t happy with us being there, even though it was on the beach that the burkini ban was overturned but the locals were not happy,” Alshelh told Channel 7. “There shouldn’t be a connection between terrorism and the burkini and there shouldn’t be a connection between terrorism and Islam altogether.”
Villeneuve-Loubet was one of more than 30 municipalities in France that banned the burkini in the aftermath of July’s terror attack in the town of Nice. France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls has supported the decision, calling the burkini “a provocation of radical Islam.”
In August, however, France’s highest administrative court overturned the ban in Villeneuve-Loubet, saying it violated civil liberties. The prohibition has since been lifted in several other towns, including Nice and Cannes.
But according to some French Muslims, the lifting of the burkini ban has done nothing to diminish the atmosphere of Islamophobia that has already gripped the country.
“To be a Muslim woman in France is to live in an apartheid system of which the beach bans are just the latest incarnation,” Karima Mondon, a French teacher, recently told The New York Times.
“The way people look at us has changed,” added Halima Djalab Bouguerra, a 21-year-old student. “Tongues have loosened. No one is afraid of telling a Muslim to ‘go back home’ anymore.”
After Alshelh was chased off the beach in Villeneuve-Loubet, she took to the streets with a local activist to raise awareness about burkinis.
Dressed in the garments, the women held signs with the questions “What do you think of my burkini?” and “Ask me about my burkini?” to encourage people to discuss the attire with them.
The response to their demonstration was “mixed,” said Channel 7, with some passers-by reacting with condemnation and mockery.
“It starts off at the beach and God knows where it ends,” Alshelh told the network. “It’s hard to be proud of a country who rejects you and whose laws allow the general public to discriminate against you. It’s really difficult.”
The burkini was invented in 2004 by an Australian designer named Aheda Zanetti.
Her goal, she said, had been to create a comfortable garment for swimming and sports for women who otherwise would’ve avoided such activities due to modesty concerns.
“It was about integration and acceptance and being equal and about not being judged ... The Muslim community, they had a fear of stepping out. They had fear of going to public pools and beaches and so forth, and I wanted girls to have the confidence to continue a good life,” Zanetti wrote in The Guardian last month. “I wanted to do something positive ― and anyone can wear this, Christian, Jewish, Hindus. It’s just a garment to suit a modest person, or someone who has skin cancer, or a new mother who doesn’t want to wear a bikini, it’s not symbolizing Islam.”
The negativity that has surrounded the suit in France greatly saddens her, she said.
“I think they have misunderstood a garment that is so positive ― it symbolizes leisure and happiness and fun and fitness and health and now they are demanding women get off the beach and back into their kitchens? This has given women freedom, and they want to take that freedom away? So who is better, the Taliban or French politicians? They are as bad as each other,” she wrote.