By Eva Brems
The Kokott-Sharpston Standoff at the Threshold to the Summer of Shame
In France and Belgium, the summer of 2016 will be remembered as the summer of the burkini debates. Numerous French municipalities banned Islamic swimgear that covers the body, and in Belgium, majority politicians called for a similar ‘burkini’ ban. The world watched with disbelief as French police chased Muslim women wearing body-covering swimwear from public beaches, or even forced them to undress in public. After the Council of State suspended such a measure in one municipality, the French Prime Minister did not hesitate to publicly criticise the highest administrative court. For those committed to combating minority discrimination, this debate was a turning point, as many proponents of a ban no longer bothered to dress it up as a measure protecting values such as neutrality, the protection of vulnerable people, gender equality or even the notoriously vague concept of ‘living together’. Many of the participants in the burkini debates felt no longer inhibited from publicly saying what it was really about for them: a dislike of Islam, and the desire not to be confronted with it. For Muslim women in both countries, this honesty about the underlying motives is probably all that distinguishes burkini bans from the bans on other types of female Islamic dress (mainly hijab and niqab bans) that they have been confronted with for decades. Yet for many observers who may not have reacted to such previous bans, the French burkini campaign was a step too far. The need for clear limits to admissible restrictions on Islamic dress has thus become keenly felt.
Shortly before the burkini row kicked off, two Advocate Generals of the European Court of Justice issued their opinions in two parallel cases of alleged headscarf discrimination. Both a Belgian and a French court asked the ECJ for guidance, through a preliminary ruling, on whether the dismissal of an employee by a private employer on grounds of her wearing an Islamic headscarf, against the employer’s dress policy, violates EU antidiscrimination law. The Opinions of AG Kokott in the Achbita case and of AG Sharpston in the Bougnaoui case reach opposite conclusions: for Kokott, there is no discrimination, for Sharpston there is. Underlying the difference in outcomes are numerous important differences in the interpretation of the Employment Equality Directive. These differences of interpretation, in turn, betray widely divergent views on the protection of the fundamental rights of minorities in Europe.