France bans wearing the burqa in public; fines range from $42-$205
More than a dozen women have contacted the businessman to pay their fines
As several politicians across Europe try to outlaw outfits worn by some Muslim women, one businessman is fighting back with his checkbook.
Rachid Nekkaz, a wealthy Algerian entrepreneur and human rights activist, has stepped up to the plate to pay the penalty for any Muslim woman who is fined in France for wearing the burkini, a full-length swimsuit that covers the whole body except for the face, hands and feet.
“I decided to pay for all the fines of women who wear the burkini in order to guarantee their freedom of wearing these clothes, and most of all, to neutralize the application on the ground of this oppressive and unfair law,” Nekkaz said.
Bans on burqas and burkinis
The burkini ban at some French beaches is the most recent move by Parisian politicians to prohibit religious attire in public.
In April 2011, France became the first European country to ban public wearing of the burqa, a full-body covering that includes a mesh panel over the face, and the niqab, a full-face veil with an opening for the eyes.
Those breaking the law face fines of €150 (about $205) or public service duties.
This month, Cannes, a city on the French Riviera famous for its annual film festival, banned the religious swimwear.
Those breaking the temporary burkini ban, which started July 28 and runs until August 31, face fines of €38 (about $42), said the Cannes mayor’s office.
France’s burqa ban went into effect under former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration. Sarkozy, leader of the center-right Republicans party, publicly announced on Tuesday that he plans to run again in the country’s presidential elections next year.
Sara Silvestri, a professor at City University London who specializes in religion and politics, told CNN these bans effectively play right into the hands of extremists.
“Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State thrive every time Western countries give them ammunition to say that the West is discriminating or stigmatizing Muslims,” she said.
“The effect of these laws is that Muslims feel marginalized and in turn, the feeling of being unwelcome impacts their ability and willingness to integrate into society, can cause withdrawal and lead to engagement with radical groups,” she said.
After the Charlie Hebdo and Nice attacks, Nekkaz said a few politicians took advantage of the fear of Islam, which spread within the population, to try to reduce the number of freedoms in France, which he called an “unacceptable, inadmissible and intolerable move.”
Across Europe, similar bans are taking form, as the tide shifts toward more regulations in favor of restricting the traditional Islamic attire.
“And I don’t accept that these great countries such as France, Belgium, Switzerland or the Netherlands and now Germany, take advantage of this fear of Islam to reduce the number of personal freedoms,” Nekkaz said.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said this month the country intends to ban full-face veils in any place where identification is required, including in schools or government offices, to promote security and national cohesion.
Burkini inventor: Garment empowers women
The ban is “misunderstood,” says Aheda Zanetti, the woman credited with inventing the burkini.
“I can’t believe that a politician would get involved in swimsuits that women choose to wear,” she told CNN by phone.
“(It’s) such a positive garment, a great (item) that many women choose to wear for whatever lifestyle. I think he’s misunderstood the whole concept of this swimsuit,” she said, referring to Cannes Mayor David Lisnard.
She says that she has only ever met women who say it is their choice to wear Islamic-style dress, such as the niqab, a face covering.
“I’ve never heard a women say that it has been forced upon it. In fact I know of women who want to wear a niqab and their husbands don’t want them to. We have rights, and we’ve always had rights, much more than many western cultures believe us to have.”
She adds that the ban has had nothing but a positive impact on her business, by raising the profile of the burkini.
“I reckon sales have improved by 90% in the last week,” she says from western Sydney, where her company, Ahiida, is based.
“Our online sales are extremely strong; inquiries are continuing on. Our support from women across the world is 200% what it has been. (Lisnard has) done a very good thing for me.
“If he only knew the power he’s given to women by saying they can’t wear these. We can.”
Religious freedom of expression
“My duty is to remind great European democracies that what made these great democracies is the respect of fundamental freedoms,” Nekkaz said.
“Freedoms that have been taken away from women who have opted to wear the traditional Islamic dress.” said Nekkaz, who is married to a woman who doesn’t wear the traditional Islamic cover.
Despite his philanthropic gesture, Nekkaz said he believes wearing the niqab or the burkini is not the best way to integrate in European societies.
“However, like the French philosopher Voltaire once said, even if I don’t agree with these women, I will fight until death to guarantee their freedom of expression,” said Nekkaz, who gave up his French nationality in 2013.
Human rights activists have long weighed in on the controversy surrounding the legislation.
Hervé Lavisse, president of the Cannes-Grasse section of the Human Rights League, said France’s recent burkini ban would be counterproductive because “instead of appeasing people, it will inflame tensions.”
“I decided to use my checkbook and to pay these fines, in order to guarantee these women’s freedom,” Nekkaz said.
To date, 15 women have contacted the businessman to pay their fines, Nekkaz said.
“I think that by the end of the month, that is to say by the end of the application of this decree for the summer, we are estimating that there will be about a hundred fines,” Nekkaz said.
CNN’s Bianca Britton, Eugenie Lambert and Sheena McKenzie contributed to this report.