The Burkini Ban And The Long Legacy Of Controlling Women's Bodies

Imagine you are at the beach, sitting on the sand, and enjoying the sounds of waves crashing.  Suddenly you are confronted by armed police officers.  The police officers stand over you and demand that you remove some of your clothing.  Although this may seem like an absurd and insulting request from a police officer, women have been forced to do just that — women have been asked to remove their beach attire along the French coast.  But only a specific form of swimwear has been monitored by police: the “burkini,” a swimsuit that covers a woman’s entire body except for her face, hands, and feet.

The burkini — the name of which is a mix of the word “bikini” and “burqa, a type of veil worn primarily by Muslim women in Afghanistan and South Asia — was created by Aheda Zanetti in 2004 to “give women freedom,” as she wrote in the Guardian last week. And yet, officials have interpreted it as doing the opposite: In the wake of multiple harrowing terrorist attacks in France, up to 30 towns in France, mainly along the French Riviera, recently instituted bans on the burkini. Although France’s highest administrative court later suspended the bans, officials in the city of Nice continue to fine women for wearing burkinis and other government forces, including parliament and presidential candidates, could reinstate the ban.

Although the burkini ban may now be (at least temporarily) at bay, the insidious concept that women’s clothing can and should be chosen and regulated for them is a continuing issue — and one with a long legacy. Take the history of swimwear alone, for example. The summer of 2016 may be remembered for the burkini ban, but it also celebrates the bikini’s 70th anniversary — an article of clothing that was once also monitored like the burkini is now. In Italy circa 1957, for example, bikinis were viewed as too immodest and were therefore prohibited on beaches. The United States also has a history of aggressively monitoring women’s swimwear. One-piece swimsuits were banned in parts of the US in 1908 and swimsuits with skirts were harshly scrutinized. A 1907 Washington Post article referenced this type of swimsuit as “apologies for skirts [that] endanger the morals of the children” and recommended that “the police must interfere and stop the outrageous proceedings.”

Women may now widely be allowed to wear bikinis, but recent burkini backlash proves this legacy of policing women’s bodies and their choice of clothing prevails. But there is another issue at play here: Women should not only be able to express themselves through their attire just as freely as men — no matter if they choose the burkini or bikini or anything else — but the idea that Muslim women especially lack the agency to make this decision is also evident. It is a sexist, patronizing attitude that points to more general, prevailing social and political myths about Muslim women in particular.

These myths about Muslim women persist in a particularly invective way in modern day France. Given the cultural context of a strong commitment in the nation to separation of church and state (known as laïcité) and in the face of recent attacks, which have created an environment of increased Islamophobia in France, the burkini seems to have been interpreted as a contribution to the oppression of Muslim women. France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls said as much when he called the burkini “a symbol of the enslavement of women,” suggesting that he views Muslim women who choose to cover their bodies as oppressed.

This perspective is just one example of a larger, Western canon of thought about Muslims.  The justification that the burkini ban was created to liberate Muslim women calls on similar justifications invoked for United States military presence in Afghanistan (where Islam is the official religion).  In late 2001, then-First Lady Laura Bush claimed that “Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror — not only because our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan, we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us.”  Bush’s use of the phrase “civilized people” implies that she views Americans as civilized in contrast to the people of Afghanistan.  The “broken hearts” for “women and children” of Afghanistan paint them as helpless victims while also instilling fear by suggesting that terrorists aspire to make all women and children similarly vulnerable.  More recently, Donald Trump claimed, “[Muslim] Women are treated horribly, and other things that are happening that are very, very bad,” fueling the stereotype of the helpless Muslim women and the evil influences of the faith of Islam.

In reality, many Muslim women lead fulfilling lives full of autonomous decisions — whether that decision is to wear a burkini or pursue their career of choice.  59% of Muslim American women surveyed in 2008 were employed, which is a greater percentage than women of other faiths.  As one Muslim woman interviewed at the World Government Summit said, “We’re similar to any other females across the world.  I think we all share the same problems, the same issues, being dominated in a man’s environment.”

In terms of the burkini specifically, the truth is it was invented to liberate women from all backgrounds who feel most comfortable covering their bodies and allow them to enjoy the beach. Burkinis aren’t just for Muslim women, but have also been sold to Jews, Hindus, Christians, Mormons, and many others for a variety of reasons. As Vanessa Lourenço, a burkini designer, told the New York Times, “At the end of the day women are women, whether Muslim or not, and we all want to be comfortable, look beautiful and feel feminine.”

Ultimately, the controversy surrounding the burkini is rooted in a broader, persistent control of women all over the world.  Although the burkini is viewed by some as an oppressive cultural practice, banning the garment only oppresses women in a more obvious way, by taking away their basic right to dress the way they want to at the beach. The burkini’s connection to Islam and Muslim women further inhibits women by encouraging others to continue to buy into the stereotype of the oppressed Muslim woman.  At the end of the day, regulating how any woman can dress at the beach harms all women by reminding us all that we still live in a patriarchal society in which women are subjected to gender-based regulation of their bodies and autonomy.

More articles by Category: Feminism, International, Misogyny, Race/Ethnicity, Religion
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Sexism, Gender bias, Middle East and North Africa, Identity, Racism, Discrimination



Chloe Hallinan
WMC Fbomb Editorial Board Member
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