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Unia, Belgium: opinions on wearing the swimsuit covering the body

August 3rd 2017

Can we forbid the wearing of the swimsuit covering the body in a public swimming pool? Unia asked the question to the Health and Care Agency in Flanders and the Flemish Genderkamer. Based on their arguments, Unia sees no valid reason to restrict the freedom to choose an integral swim suit. Unia deduces that, in the absence of a legal basis, this prohibition is contrary to the Flemish anti-discrimination decree.

The question of wearing the "burkini" was put to Unia by some Flemish towns and by several swimmers because some public swimming pools prohibit this type of outfit. This article by Unia examines the arguments put forward in favor of a ban.

1. Individual liberty

Belgium is a free country in which, as a general rule, we can think and say what we want (freedom of expression) and believe what we want (freedom of religion and belief). This freedom extends to the clothes worn. A public authority that wishes to restrict this, must put forward sound arguments such as the protection of the general interest, the protection of the rights of others, and so on. Unia then presented the selected arguments to specialized bodies. They consider that the arguments can not justify a ban on the swimsuit covering the body.

2. Reasons for hygiene and safety?

According to the Health and Care Agency in Flanders (Vlaams Agentschap Zorg in Gezondheid), a ban on hygiene is not possible. The whole body swimsuit is the same material as the other swimsuits and therefore has no impact on the quality of the water. In terms of security, the Agency does not see any risk in this either.

3. Men and women equality?

The Flemish Genderkamer is formal: this type of dress does not represent a danger to equality between men and women. According to them, it can not be said that a dress worn voluntarily constitutes a breach of equality between men and women. The argument of equality can not therefore be used to oppose a garment of this type. The fact that the garment is perceived by some as being too unconventional or too cautious, or even strange, is not enough to justify a ban.

4. Negative reactions of other swimmers

Unia further argues that the negative reactions of other swimmers do not constitute a legal argument to justify a ban.

Conclusion

Given the above arguments, Unia concludes that a general prohibition of wearing the swimsuit covering the body may discriminate against some swimmers. This is specifically about people who want to wear the "burkini" because of their convictions or due to necessity, in particular because of their health status, physical characteristic or disability. As an institution for the defense of human rights, Unia strongly supports individual freedom. Whatever one may think, a bathing suit covering the body can be worn for religious reasons. It is also a fundamental freedom as described in the Constitution and in international treaties for the defense of human rights.

Further Information

This article was translated from a summary written by Unia. See the opinion in French here.

Related readings

For more information on this topic, Equinet’s publication – Equality Law in Practice: Religion and Belief in Europe – concentrates on religion and belief cases as it was apparent to equality bodies that this area of law was bringing forth a number of controversial and difficult cases which were affecting the fundamental rights of those who hold religion and belief and those who do not.