I’m away on holiday this week but here’s a Feminist Friday piece that’s been brewing for a while on the subject of the Burkini.
So in case you weren’t paying attention… here’s the catchup. Several years ago, an Australian clothing designer named Aheda Zanetti made a swim suit for women who wanted to adhere to Islamic dress codes. An Islamic woman herself, Zanetti has designed several pieces for Muslim girls to wear while taking part in sports, allowing for them to be active and healthy while still adhering to their chosen dress codes.
This summer, several towns in south eastern France objected to women wearing Burkinis at the beach and so decided to ban them. And when there was a lady who defied, or did not know about, the ban, armed French police forced her to undress in public.
For such an horrific mess of an issue, involving feminism, religious freedom, freedom of expression and the right to privacy, that can be summed up in a remarkably short paragraph. But oh what a mess it has left us with. I have so many problems with the entire scenario that I’m not entirely sure where to start picking it apart. So… starting with a personal slant might be the best option.
I don’t like showing my body in public. I find wearing short sleeves and shorts in public disconcerting. I prefer trousers, or long skirts. Or a skirt that’s at least knee or calf length, with tights. If I am wearing short sleeves or sleeveless tops, I tend to wear a cardigan over the top, or a wrap. Or opt for elbow length sleeves instead. I don’t like showing my bosom, I prefer to have it covered up, along with my shoulders and back. I never show my stomach. I feel naked and uncomfortable if I do.
This has nothing to do with body positivity. I have no problems with my body. I think I look great. I’m in proportion, curvy, I have an out-in-out figure with boobs and a bum and a real waist. My husband tells me I have great legs. In the privacy of my own home I have no problem being naked, or wearing just my underwear. I have no problem with my husband looking at me while I do so. But I don’t like being ‘on display’ in public. I don’t have to justify it. It’s a personal choice. My free choice.
And if I choose to cover it up, that is also my choice.
It’s nothing to do with faith. Or religion. Or patriarchy. Or control. The only control in this is mine, and I choose to cover my body up. And what I choose to cover it up WITH is my choice too. I actually find the idea of a Burkini oddly appealing. I would never, EVER, wear a swimsuit to the beach, let alone a bikini. But I love to swim. I love to exercise out of doors. A burkini would protect my skin, along with my privacy and allow me to take part in an activity I like without feeling uncomfortable.
But that wouldn’t be allowed on those beaches in France. Or rather it wasn’t, until the French government overruled the bans, in the first sensible action of the whole situation.
So why do people have a problem with Burkinis?
Several parallels have already been drawn between the Burkini and a nun’s habit, and nuns are allowed to visit the seaside and splash around in their religious clothing:
So what’s so different about a Burkini?
Is it that it is seen as a purely Islamic piece of clothing? More to the point, a piece of Islamic female clothing?
Here we come closer to an uncomfortable truth.
Islam is frequently presented as a religion which oppresses women. Only, that’s not strictly correct. Certain interpretations of *patriarchy* within Islam have, and in some cases continue, to oppress women. The Taliban. ISIS/Daenesh. The religious governments in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Khazakstan, Indonesia or any of the other Islamic countries which mandate the adherence to their interpretation of sharia law. What have they all got in common? They’re run by men.
People see the Burkini as a representation of oppression of women. But actually the forced removal of that symbol is a far greater oppression. It is an enforced *lack* of choice, which has absolutely nothing to do with religion or secularism, and everything to do with oppression and the suppression of free speech and expression.
I’ve taught Islamic students. Worked with Islamic colleagues. Known and counted practicing Muslims among my friends. The vast majority of them have been women. I have not seen a single sign of oppression among them in the way they practice their faith. Yes, they chose to wear a hijab in some cases. So what? It is something that they CHOOSE rather than something which is forced upon them.
If a woman CHOOSES to cover her head, to cover her body, to conceal her physical form – that is her right.
If a woman is FORCED to conceal herself – for example, under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan where women were mandated by law to wear full Burkas which covered their bodies and faces – then yes, that is a problem. I don’t like Burkas because they conceal the face. Something that is not demanded by the Qu’ran, but is enforced by men, by that particular patriarchal interpretation of sharia law, in order to oppresss rather than honour women. I mean, seriously, look at these:
There is a big difference between these blue tented monstrosities and the other forms of Islamic dress:
This fits the dress code for Islamic women. The body is covered. The cut is loose and concealing. Only the hands, feet and face are visible. The hair is covered. And yet this is not that different from what I would wear to go to work. OK I don’t wear a hijab, but I’ve been known to pin my hair up, to cover it with a scarf if it rains, to wear a hat or a hood in the cold weather, to tie a scarf or wrap around my neck and shoulders.
But people have no problem with the way I dress. Because I’m a white woman who is not Islamic. Even though it’s not that different to the brown women who are Islamic.
The women wearing the Burkinis were making a choice. And suddenly, with the force of violence and law, they were told they had made an ‘incorrect’ choice. Because it made some people uncomfortable, to be reminded that in some places on this planet, women ARE victims of oppression.
The forced removal of the Burkini was not about liberation. It was about concealment, just not of the body. It was an attempt to deny that there are women in the world who are oppressed. An attempt to remove the symbol of oppression and impose a single view of ‘freedom’ (ie exposure) onto that woman. It was not freedom to her, it was humiliation. It was embarrassment, it was abusive. I would feel the same if someone asked me to remove my clothes and expose my body in public, even the parts of it which are not considered by society to be too sexualised for public display. And it has nothing to do with faith, religion or oppression for me. It has to do with choice.
Islam is not, in and of itself, incompatible with feminism. I mean, look at this fine lady:
One of the greatest living feminists, Malala Yousafzi. Is she oppressed just because she chooses to wear Islamic dress? Is she heck, she’s a leading light for feminism, liberty and female education in this world. The patriarchal enforcement of a single interpretation of Islam is what is oppressive, and that must be fought against. That must be challenged. But banning things like Burkinis is not the way to go about it. In fact, it’s a backward step. One we must try to put right.
The French motto of Liberté, égalité, fraternité has long been held in high esteem as a code for Freedom.
Perhaps we need to add a little more solidarité féminine to the mix – viva la sisterhood!