So recently, the mayor of Cannes in France issued a ban on burkinis. Burkinis is a made-up name for special full-body swimming garment: a hybrid between Burqa and Bikini. In reality, a burkini is a swimming suit composed of leggings and a sort of a short dress worn on top of it. Some burkinis have a hoodie attached and with some other you add a hijab that would cover the head.
I didn’t grow up knowing burkinis. I used to go to the beach and wear a bathing suit. Later, when I decided to wear hijab, I used to put a long dress and hijab. In water, this can be so uncomfortable and heavy and when you go to sit on the beach it collects tons of sand and you feel you instantly gained extra pounds of weight.
At some point I decided to stop swimming, as I felt so much annoyed by the sand and the curious looks. An experience that was supposed to be fun and joyful turned to become itchy and embarrassing. I had the impression everyone would like at me.
And then, I started hearing about some nice suits that modestly cover the body but are made of appropriate fabric that wouldn’t keep the water and would dry as soon as you are out of the water. At that time, no body called these suits burkinis. We didn’t have a specific name for them. We just called them bathing suit for hijabis.
I think they first appeared in Turkey and Malaysia ( I also read somewhere that it was originally designed by an Australian designer of Lebanese descent, Aheda Zanetti) and I remember one of my friends borrowed a suit from another friend who bought it from Turkey and took it to a seamstress and asked her to do something similar.
In Tunisia, Burkinis made their appearance in beaches in the early 2000s. Before then, many women swam either in bathing suits; some others in bikini but many women would wear long dresses or didn’t swim at all. The contact of the long dresses with water and by the effect of pressure and water, they inflate like balloons so women have to keep burst these bubbles of air each time they stand up in the water. Needless to say, that with a long dress, you can’t really swim and move fast. You just dip in the water and stay there. Moreover, once outside the water, the wet dress becomes so tight on the body revealing the shape of the woman and thus defeating the purpose of modesty that a full body suit is supposed to achieve.
Burkini came as the ideal creation. It gave women the opportunity to enjoy water, beach, swim with her friends, kids and family without necessarily looking like an alien.
I remember the first time I went to buy a burkini in Tunisia, it was like trying to buy alcohol in Canada when you are underage. It was in 2008, the dictatorship of Ben Ali was still in place and all sign of religious symbols were suspicious to say the least. Burkini, like hijab, was of course considered in Tunisia as a sign of affiliation with Islamic groups and thus selling them would mean for the regime encouraging women to join these mouvements. So I went to the souk and I asked some store about them. The seller would look at me and assess my real intentions and then once I passed the “test”, he would bring from, literally under the table, one or two packages with a burkini inside them so I can see the models.
But after, the Arab Spring, burkinis were freely sold even in large supermarkets and women who whished to buy one, could freely do so.
It is interesting to note that Tunisian beaches today are full of women wearing burkinis. Even some women, who are not wearing hijab, would go for a burkini.
(It must be mentioned here that women in bathing suits are not harassed but it is very common in these societies that men would stare at women so burkinis is a way to keep some of these unwanted stare away or limited. By no means, burkini would become a way to control to opposite sex attitudes, as this is a matter of education that has never been tackled)
Of course, for people who still consider women covering their bodies as a sign of oppression, burkinis joined the list of words and clothing that linked Muslim women to the world of darkness. For many Muslim women who didn’t want other people commenting on their bodies or showing off their skin for public consumption, burkini achieved the total opposite. It combined liberation with modesty: the best of two worlds!
The recent decision of France to ban burkini from the beaches in Nice is another example of anti-Muslim attitudes wrapped under the disguise of women liberation and combatting religious extremism. All what it will do is: to alienate French Muslim women furthermore and of course prevent them from a nice refreshing swim in the Mediterranean Sea.
What bothers me even more is the total silence of Western feminists. Their silence is disappointing for this is a perfect example of male interference with female choices.
When women are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia, all western feminists would mobilize and stand up (rightly so) to denounce the arbitrariness, abusive and patriarchal nature of such decision. When women in Iran are punished for showing more hair in public or going out with make up, the outrageous reaction of Western feminist is so intense ( and yes we should be outraged) but when Muslim women are banned from going to the beach wearing a burkini, all you hear is silence or whispers. The burkini ban perfectly fits the old equation, so why bother?
Islam= Women oppression
How can a country, considered as a beacon of rights and freedom go so low and do this to its won citizens?
In France, it isn’t a secret that women are allowed to go topless on beaches. There are even some beaches especially designated for nudists. But to prevent women to swim because of the length of their swimming suit is a silly and a simply revengeful reaction. Once again, one of the most vulnerable groups of a society have to pay for the incompetence and failures of the politicians.
At least, and for a small temporary confort, we have some powerful words from Arundhati Roy who commented about the banning of burqa in France in 2010:
“When, as happened recently in France, an attempt is made to coerce women out of the burqa rather than creating a situation in which a woman can choose what she wishes to do, it’s not about liberating her, but about unclothing her. It becomes an act of humiliation and cultural imperialism. It’s not about the burqa. It’s about the coercion. Coercing a woman out of a burqa is as bad as coercing her into one. Viewing gender in this way, shorn of social, political and economic context, makes it an issue of identity, a battle of props and costumes. It is what allowed the US government to use western feminist groups as moral cover when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Afghan women were (and are) in terrible trouble under the Taliban. But dropping daisy-cutters on them was not going to solve their problems.”