It was strange to see an armed policeman ordering a woman on a beach to take off some of her clothes. And yet that is precisely what has been happening in France – the consequence of a ban on the so-called burkini, now in place in 15 French municipalities.
A number of women opting for more modest beachwear have already been fined, with a philanthropic French business figure stumping up for many of the penalties.
But since that photographed confrontation, a French court has ruled against the ban. And the French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said the ban was unconstitutional, and would stoke tensions.
Stated reasons for the prohibition of religious garb on these beaches included that they were not outfits respecting good morals and secularism. The photographs of the offending beachgoer showed her wearing leggings, a tunic and headscarf, lying alone when four policemen in bulletproof vests, with sidearms and truncheons, approached her.
Imagine this during a christening in the surf off a Durban beach, where robed churchgoers regularly hold such ceremonies.
Prescribing what a woman can wear on a beach also harks back several decades. No genius is required to know where this story is going next. One day soon, in a sort of Rosa Parks moment, a blameless woman is going to refuse to comply with the order to remove her garments, or refuse to pay the fine.
At some point, there is every possibility that some misguided magistrate will lock up a woman for expressing her religion. That will provoke protests and worse across France, and more widely.
If the aim of the terrorists who took so many innocent lives in Paris, Nice and elsewhere was to foment hatred and conflict, and to provoke the French state into an overreaction, then some authorities there are fulfilling their wicked ambitions.
Bullying Muslim women on beaches casts the country in a most unfavourable light. When does it spread beyond the beaches, and beyond the ban on full veils? It is unprincipled and divisive.