Burkinis: harbinger or red herring?

burkiniNever heard of a burkini? Well, as this Los Angeles Times article explains, a burkini is the logical combination of the two words it seems to be a combination of:

The water-resistant burkinis, outfits that cover everything except a woman's face, hands and feet, are designed for Muslim women in search of "a little more modesty" so they can "have more freedom to play sports," according to the manufacturer. But in France, women in burkinis risk more than a few curious stares.

Two weeks ago, a 35-year-old burkini-wearer was barred from a public pool in an eastern Paris suburb, according to the French daily Le Parisien, triggering the latest bout of soul searching over an issue that strikes a deep chord in a nation with a strong secular tradition.

The relatively short article by special correspondent Devorah Lauter, who also writes on French Jewish issues for JTA, does a commendable job of touching on such a multi-faceted story in such a small newshole. The burkini issue, Lauter explains, is only the latest in a string of negative responses to Muslims becoming more visible in a society traditionally uncomfortable with public proclamations of religious observance.

"This is the tip of the fundamentalist iceberg," National Assembly member Andre Gerin said of the burkini issue, which he claims is part of a "larger national problem" of growing Islamic extremism in France. Wearing the garment in public is a "clear provocation" and "ridiculous," while helping "undo years of progress toward equal rights for women."

There's not much discussion of why most in the Muslim world believe a "modest" woman needs to be clothed from head to ankle, but at this stage in history most newspaper readers have become familiar with the concept.

I can except at face value's Lauter's implication that France's secular culture just can't stomach the site of public religiosity. But what I don't know is why and where this visceral reaction comes from. Also missing from this story is much detail about the nature of Muslim life in France.

The between-the-lines reading is that it's not just the burka that is, as President Nicolas Sarkozy said, "not welcome" but apparently Muslims on the whole. Is this true? How does this compare with the way Orthodox Jews and Christians are treated in France? And what role does France's socioeconomic strata -- Muslims, often immigrants from North Africa, are much more likely be poor and, by extension, criminals -- play in this?

Christians have Carrie Prejean, Jews get Bar Refaeli and Muslims have Shakira, seen here modeling for Muslim Swimwear

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