Uncovering France’s Pattern of Controlling Women’s Dress

CAROLINE  HERTER—In May 2018, Serena Williams wore a custom-made, black Nike catsuit to the first round of the French Open. On August 24, Tennis Magazine published an interview with French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli, where he made it clear that Williams’s catsuit would not be allowed back at the tournament. Giudicelli referred explicitly to Williams as an example of women’s tennis dress going “too far,” stating, “the combination of Serena this year, for example, it will no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place.”

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Some tennis fans and onlookers have accused the ban of being a micro-aggression against Williams motivated by racism, classism, and sexism. Fans were quick to point out that (white) player Anne White wore a white spandex catsuit during the first round of Wimbledon in 1985, without eliciting a reactionary ban from any federations. Others have criticized the ban for its sexist implications: tennis legend Billy Jean King tweeted “the policing of women’s bodies must end” in response to Giudicelli’s ruling.

The Federation’s dress code favoring the more traditional women’s tennis outfit of the above-the-knee skirt over Williams’s “too far” catsuit reflects a pattern in French culture of penalizing women for wearing too much. In response to a deadly terrorist attack in Nice in July 2016, for example, a number of French municipalities passed legislation banning “burkinis,” a bathing suit worn by some Muslim women which covers the entire body. At least 30 French municipalities passed similar bans against vaguely defined “inappropriate” coverings at the beach in the month following the Nice attack. Burkini-wearers in noncompliance are fined or asked to leave the beach.

Cities banning burkinis used a variety of rationales to justify the regulations, ranging from safeguarding hygiene, to protecting women from oppression, to upholding morality. The mayor of Cannes, advocating for the ban, called the burkini “a symbol of Islamic extremism.” Lionnnel Luca, the Conservative mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet, defended the ban as a necessary counter to the “rampant Islamisation” he said was taking over France.

Supporters of the bans have also invoked France’s culture of secularism as support for the laws requiring women to uncover at the beach. France’s secularism is engrained in its constitution, which formally declares France a secular republic as a vigorous approach to the separation of Church and State. The robust French culture of secularism stems from a belief that religion and national identity should never overlap. The concept, known as “laïcité,” had formerly been used to support the banning of face-coverings in public (which, like the burkini bans, also impacted Muslim women primarily).

Despite the strong secular sentiment in France, on August 26, 2018, the country’s highest administrative court ruled that the burkini bans were a “clearly illegal” infringement on fundamental liberties including “freedom of movement, freedom of conscience, and personal liberty.” Ironically, the individual rights French secularism protects are the same as those the high court found the burkini bans to violate. For example, the “freedom of conscience” which the court pointed to in declaring the bans illegal is a right that secularism aims to safeguard, by guaranteeing all French citizens the freedom to practice the religion of their choice.

The court struck down the ban on the basis that the municipalities failed to show the “proven risk” to public order required to restrict individual liberties. The fact that a proven risk to “public order” justifies restricting individual liberties echoes the reasoning behind the federation’s catsuit ban on the grounds of tradition. The Federation is a private entity, and thus the catsuit ban does not implicate French freedom of expression law. However, the two instances of French organizations requiring women to uncover highlight a recurring pattern of attempts to control women’s’ expression, as well as the disparity in applications between those attempts directed toward women of color in particular. Despite the public outcry, and the high court’s ruling, the regulations have persevered: municipalities continue to enforce the burkini bans, and Williams will compete in a skirt at the French Open.