When Muslim women in the French city of Grenoble defied a municipal ban by swimming at local public pools burkinis, the town responded by shutting the pools — despite the dangerous record-setting heat wave sweeping across Western Europe.
The city said in a statement that lifeguards requested the shutdown because “they are there to maintain safety and they can’t do that when they have to worry about the crowds” that accompany the protest swims, according to a report from the Guardian on Thursday.
“We are working towards a positive solution,” the statement added.
Seven Muslim women went to the pools in burkinis on Sunday, alongside activists from the rights group Alliance Citoyenne. They say the burkini ban is discrimination.
France’s population is about 9 percent Muslim, the largest in Europe, and France has led the bloc in cracking down on religious displays in public. Muslim women have bee hit particular hard by such rules: France was the first European country to ban women from wearing the full veil back in 2011. Nicolas Sarkozy, the president at the time, claimed the veils oppressed women and said they were "not welcome" in the country.
The Grenoble-based Alliance Citoyenne has framed swimming in burkinis as an act of civil disobedience, saying they were inspired by the Montgomery bus boycott carried out by black Americans during the Civil Rights movement.
Before the town opted to shut down the pools, the group’s head organizer Adrien Roux told CNN they planned to hold protest swims every Sunday. He said the protest is about more than just pools — it’s about the opportunities some Muslim women are denied because their clothing is considered a religious symbol.
"The big question is access to public employment, to certain jobs they are denied," Roux told CNN. "Many cannot be teachers in France and other jobs. This is why it's important for them."
The protests and the ensuing shutdown have become a national story. The local member of parliament, Eric Ciotti, a member of the right-wing Republican party, said the burkini “has no place in France where women are equal to men.”
Matthieu Chamussy, a member of the center-right party, framed the pool closure as a feminist issue, and stoked fears by saying “political Islam is advancing step by step, the cause of women reversing." He then challenged the town’s mayor to act.
Grenoble Mayor Eric Piolle later said that “when it comes to equal access of a public service, the role of the state is to pose clear and just rules for everyone. National solidarity is at stake.”
Officials have not indicated when the pools will re-open. But it’s an incredibly dangerous time to shut them down. France just recorded its highest temperature since records began, with the mercury in the town of Carpentras hitting 111.7 degrees Fahrenheit. The high in Grenoble was 100 degrees on Friday, with similar highs predicted for the weekend.
When a similar heat wave hit France in 2003, some 15,000 people died. The Washington Post noted that a poster from the regional health agency for Paris advised citizens this week to drink plenty of water, refrain from drinking alcohol and to “wet the body” frequently.
Cover: A burkini (R), a culotte swimmer (C) and a csuta are on display in the exhibition 'Cherchez la femme' (lit. Look for the woman) in the Jewish Museum in Berlin,'Germany, 30 March 2017. The exhibition is to run from 31 March to 02 July 2017. Photo by: Christophe Gateau/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images