Feminist Friday – Burkini

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.

Burkini M and S

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.

Telegraph Photo - woman Birkini

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:

Nuns at the beach



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:

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!

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Suis-je Charlie Hebdo? Why I will continue using the hashtag #jesuisCharlieHebdo

It never takes long for a twitter hashtag to find its backlash, and lots of people are saying they are not Charlie Hebdo, refusing to use the #jesuisCharlieHebdo tag in support of the magazine which suffered those horrific attacks in Paris.

I must admit that after initially jumping on the bandwagon, I took myself off for a long think about this and whether I was actually in agreement the the hashtag, and a couple of days later I’m ready to put those ideas into words. It came down to one question really.

Why were Charlie Hebdo targeted by these terrorists?

Was it because their magazine was of dubious quality?

Stephen Fry wrote a very elegant response to the idea that this might make something ineligible for support in the Freedom of Speech debate.

Was it because it was racist or or xenophobic?

I should point out here that I’ve never read the magazine, I’ve seen the strips in passing but my school-girl French is rusty at best. I haven’t really paid that much attention to what the cartoons were actually saying to be honest.

Because from what I understand it wasn’t the words that were the problem. It was that the magazine featured a depiction of the prophet Muhammad.

To create any image of Muhammad, whether intentionally disrespectful or not, is to incite disapproval from Sunni Muslims in particular. While the Qu’ran does not specifically forbid the practice, various other supplemental teachings do speak against it. In fact, pictures of any prophets are discouraged, as to create one for the purpose of worship is considered idolatry and a ‘false image’ or ‘false God’. Much Muslim art work features patterns and shapes rather than any depictions of people or animals.   There are some beautiful examples on display in one of my favourite restaurants in Lancaster, ‘The Sultan of Lancaster’, which adheres to Islamic teachings in its decorations in addition to the preparation and serving of food and drink.

The thing is, according to this particularly strict adherence to this subset of Islamic teachings, as practiced by the people who perpetuated these attacks, even if Charlie Hebdo had been absolutely respectful in their depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, they would have incurred the wrath and displeasure of those who targeted them with violence. Because they believe the magazine should never have created, shared or published ANY picture of Muhammad. Period.

The people who adhere so strictly and inflexibly to this sort of tenet, who abide by all of these rules of Islam, are not satisfied with their own adherence. The aim of conversion of all those who disagree is an absolute objective to them. They do not countenance or understand the idea of a different set of values. They view one way as right – their way – and all others who disagree with them (no matter whether that disagreement is respectful or not by our definition) are wrong and deserve to be put to death.

Last year I read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, Infidel, which was an eye opener. It took me the best part of a year to read it, because after certain chapters and sections I needed to put the book away and read something light and fluffy to pull myself out of the black depression that I descended into. It was in her book that I learned of the strength of focus upon conversion to Islam that is imparted to so many Muslim children. The idea that people who are so young and impressionable could be routinely taught that they are right and all those who differ from them are wrong is a terrifying one for me.

In my own personal life, I violate many of the tenets of this Sharia Law that certain Muslims wish to see installed as a legal system. I walk with my head uncovered. I am married to a non-Muslim. I am a polytheist. I keep company with men who are not related to me. I teach, both women and men. I drink alcohol. I eat pork. I do not keep myself secluded when I am experiencing menstruation. I had sex before I was married. I am an outspoken advocate of education and emancipation for women. I am in favour of allowing gay marriage. I am in favour of allowing people to transition from one gender to another, or to reject the notion of gender.

For these beliefs, attitudes and actions, I would be tried, convicted and executed in the legal courts of many Muslim countries, under Sharia Law. The fact that I might wish, or choose, to profess an alternative belief or lifestyle would count for nothing with these people. I behave in ways which would incite the ire, displeasure and potential violence of the same type of people who attacked and saw fit to execute the journalists and cartoonists working at Charlie Hebdo.

And for that reason, I find that I am able to use the hashtag of #jesuisCharlieHebdo.

Not because I agree with their artwork, articles or cartoons.

Not because I am in favour of their statements.

Not because I think they produce great works of art which must be protected and respected at all costs.

I will never buy Charlie Hebdo. I support their right to free speech, but not the subjects of their productions. I will never work for them or donate any money to them.

But… and here’s the thing…

In the eyes of those who attacked Charlie Hebdo – I am Charlie Hebdo. I am guilty of crimes of equal severity to them. I reject the teachings of Islam. I am no different to them, and neither is anyone else of a similar mind.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was not just an assassination. It was a warning. ‘This is what we will do to you if you continue to not conform to our way of life’. That’s what makes it a terrorist attack. It’s an explicit threat to all who do not meet the standards imposed by these people. Be like us, or be killed. Follow our rules, or be killed.

I am delighted that Charlie Hebdo decided to publish this week. I think it was a bit over the top and crude that they went ahead with their chosen cover, but there’s nothing like the half-brick-in-a-sock method for getting your point across. And while I don’t agree with their chosen words, I do agree with the impetus behind them.

Which is the simple answer of ‘No.’

We will not be silent.

We will not conform under the threat of violence and execution.

We will not change.

We will not become what you want just because the notion of plurality and freedom of choice is threatening to your indoctrinated and restricted mindset.


We will continue on the path we have chosen. Not the one you are attempted to corral us into.

I am not Charlie Hebdo in what I say. But I walk my own path as proudly and independently as they walk theirs. Our paths might never cross. But we have chosen them none the less and will not be swayed from them by fear.

And in that case, mais oui. Je Suis Charlie Hebdo.

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