"Burkini" swimsuits targeted toward Muslim women have become the center of Islamophobia and women's rights debates in the U.K. and France.
The swimsuits, which resemble wetsuits and feature hoods, have existed for about a decade, Religion News Service reports. But the so-called "burkinis" (a portmanteau of 'burka' and 'bikini') are sparking new controversy after British department store Marks & Spencer launched a line of the swimsuits aimed at Muslim women in Europe.
The store's launch of burkinis has been met with critics in Europe, some of whom have called the swimsuits sexist. Marks & Spencer have defended their line, saying the swimsuits meet a demand from customers who seek a modern swimsuit design that follows a Muslim belief in modesty.
"We have sold this item for a number of years and it is popular with our customers internationally," said a spokeswoman from Marks & Spencer.
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In France, the suit's critics have been even more vocal, with French Women's Rights Minister Laurence Rossignol comparing them to American slavery.
"Sure, there are women who choose it, and there were American negroes who were for slavery," said Rossignol, who apologized for using the word "negroes," but said her point stood.
French feminist, author and historian Elisabeth Badinter called for a boycott of shops selling the burkini and other Islamic styles of clothing.
"We shouldn’t be afraid of being called Islamophobes," said Badinter. She argued the French left has been too tolerant of Muslim communities that force women to cover their hair.
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France bans girls from wearing Islamic veils such as burkas and hijabs in public elementary and secondary schools, and also bans all veils that cover the full face, according to The New York Times. Many Muslim women in France who choose to wear veils also say they are the targets of discrimination.
In a report on France in 2014, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, Nils Muiznieks, criticized the French government's "preoccupation" with the attire of Muslim women, stating the bans on head coverings only serve to "highlight and stigmatize" the women in France.
In an op-ed for the Guardian, British journalist Remona Aly defended women's right to wear a burkini, according to Religion News Service.
"If I want to buy a burkini from M&S, I bloody well will," wrote Aly.