Paris, France – As temperatures soar in France, a debate over Muslim women’s clothing has re-entered the national conversation.
Last week, a group of seven burkini-clad swimmers in Grenoble entered a public pool, defying a municipal ban.
Public pools in the southeastern city require that women wear either a one-piece suit or a bikini, and that men wear bathing shorts. The burkini is a full-body swimsuit, covering a woman’s hair, arms and legs.
As part of a protest dubbed Operation Burkini, the women received initial applause from fellow pool goers, but were eventually kicked out, banned from the pools for a month, and received a fine of 35 euros ($40) each.
Alliance Citoyenne (Citizen Alliance), the local activist group behind the protest, compared the defiance to Rosa Parks’ role in the American civil rights movement.
“[Rosa Parks] led a combat to fight discrimination and for us this is also a combat,” Taous Hammouti, one of the protesters, told Al Jazeera.
“We are free women. Even if we wear a burkini … this doesn’t change that fact that we are feminists and we are free.”
Several days after Operation Burkini, there was a second clothing violation in Grenoble. A man insisted on wearing regular shorts in another public pool.
The municipality shut down both pools for two days after lifeguards and other personnel complained they were having trouble doing their job.
The pools were shut on Wednesday and Thursday, in the middle of a record-breaking heatwave where temperatures exceeded 40 degrees.
By then, negative reactions from both sides of the debate had already come pouring in.
“The burkini has no place in France, where men and women are equal,” said Eric Ciotti, a member the right-wing Les Republicains (The Republicans) party, writing on Twitter. “To let these Islamist activists in Grenoble or anywhere else in France is to renounce the Republic. I will never accept it.”
Marlene Schiappa, France’s gender equality minister, offered a more ambiguous response.
“Women, whatever their religion or way of life, should be able to access municipal baths,” Schiappa told the main local newspaper, Le Dauphine Libere.
But, she added, “When it comes to dozens of women wearing a burkini, there is a political message there. The message is cover up and its goal is to create a new norm.”
Schiappa also pressed Grenoble Mayor Eric Piolle, who had been largely silent on the situation, for a response.
“The city of Grenoble condemns these violations of the rules,” Piolle said, in a statement released shortly after Schiappa’s comments.
In a later tweet, Piolle urged the state to take more of an active role in the burkini debate.
“When it comes to equal access to a public service, the role of the state is to set clear and fair rules for all,” Piolle said.
The burkini is banned in several towns in France, which is home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority.
No one has a problem with a woman wearing a veil if she's doing their housecleaning or washing the company toilets. But the second she leaves her 'place,' then it becomes a scandal.
With its strict version of secularism, known as laicite – France has a long history of tension with the burkini and other forms of the veil.
In 2011, it became the first European country to ban the full veil in public spaces.
Since then, a series of controversies surrounding the veil has continued to highlight France’s inability to support religious freedom, secularism and feminism all at once.
“If you try to understand the symbolic meaning of the veil, it is that women and men have to be separated,” Annie Sugier, the president of the association Ligue du Droit International des Femmes (League of International Women’s Rights) told Al Jazeera. “This is the reason why we call this sexual apartheid.”
Sugier has spearheaded a campaign demanding the International Olympic Committee (IOC) address restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia and Iran that require their female athletes to wear a veil during the games. Sugier says the rule violates the IOC’s non-discrimination policy.
As for the burkini protests, she says the same rule applies.
“Everything is political. [These women] don’t want to admit it is a political choice they are making and this is a choice against women’s rights,” Sugier said.
But other French feminists have thrown their support behind the women.
“What’s most important for me as a feminist is that women support women,” Fatima Benomar, one of the founders of the feminist group Les Effronte-es, told Al Jazeera.
“No one has a problem with a woman wearing a veil if she’s doing their housecleaning or washing the company toilets. But the second she leaves her ‘place,’ then it becomes a scandal.”
In response to the burkini protesters, one group has planned a counter-protest on Sunday encouraging Grenoble residents to “get naked”.
“Islamists want to impose the burkini in Grenoble’s pools,” the group’s Facebook event says. “Faced with this, we call for a citizen’s movement, ecologist and secular.”
More than 250 people have said they would attend.
The members of Alliance Citoyenne, meanwhile, say they are also planning to continue their protests.
“We are citizens above everything else,” says Hammouti. “Above all, before being a Muslim, I am a French citizen. And I expect to be treated as such.”