What's the big deal with the burkini?


France's top court has ruled that banning burkini swimsuits violates people's fundamental rights, setting a legal precedent after a swimsuit crackdown that elicited shock and anger in other countries.

So why does the burkini attract such controversy?

Where did it come from?

(Leonora Beck/AP)

Burkinis, which cover the head, torso and limbs - much like a wetsuit with a hood - are a recent retail invention, not a religious requirement.

An Australian woman designed the burkini to allow Muslim women to keep their bodies covered while working as lifeguards.

Burkinis are rarely seen in France, though international sales have reportedly soared in response to French efforts to restrict their use.

Why were they banned?

A sign on a beach in France tells visitors not to wear burkinis(Claude Paris/AP)

France is both exceptionally secular and unusually fearful of Islamic extremism following last month's truck attack in Nice that killed 86 people, and the killing of a Catholic priest during Mass in Normandy, attacks that were both claimed by Islamic State.

While burkini defenders say wearing the garment has nothing to do with promoting bloodshed, some French mayors have said the outfits could undermine public order by making other beach-goers angry or afraid.

Is wearing a burkini a statement?

French prime minister Manuel Valls says burkinis represent the enslavement of women. But the predominant argument against them is that the burkini violates France's century-old commitment to secularism.

The first article of the French constitution enshrines this principle, and France has repeatedly cited this secularist agenda when targeting Muslim practices that are seen to push religion too far into public life.

Why was there such a backlash?

Many French Muslims said they felt stigmatised by the restrictions, while some police have complained that the new rules were too vague.

Images this week that showed Nice police appearing to instruct a burkini-clad beach-goer to remove her tunic have stirred indignation online.

Human rights groups petitioned France's highest administrative authority, the Council of State, which ruled on Friday that banning the burkini violates fundamental rights.

While the ruling focuses on one town, it is expected to set legal precedent for all towns that have banned them.

Is it all a political move?

Nicolas Sarkozy (Michel Euler/AP)

Critics say the anti-burkini crusade reflects a far-right, anti-Muslim agenda that could be a vote-winner in France's 2017 presidential election.

Most mayors targeting the swimsuits are members of former president Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative Republicans party.

Mr Sarkozy, who is seeking re-election, said on Thursday he would support a nationwide burkini ban.

That is similar to rhetoric from the anti-immigrant National Front party of Marine Le Pen, another presidential contender who has campaigned against what she calls the "Islamisation" of France.

Where does the rest of the world stand?

A protest outside the French embassy (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Women in Muslim countries wear a range of swimwear, from bikinis to full-length garments, reflecting their personal tastes and understanding of their faith.

Burkini-style wear has generated debate in Morocco, with its large tourism industry.

In Egypt, some resorts, elite clubs and restaurants ban veils entirely and the wearing of burkini outfits in swimming pools. Religious conservatives, who have been gaining ground, say such bans are enforcing Western-inspired freedoms and styles.

Protesters rallied on Thursday in London and Berlin against the French burkini bans, and burkinis are sold by major retailers in Britain.