April 04, 2020
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To Swim In Reason

Bikini or burkini...it’s a choice best left to the woman

To Swim In Reason
Women enjoying a sunny beach-day in Tunisia
Photograph by Getty Images
To Swim In Reason
  • The Attire: About a decade back, ­designer Aheda Zanetti created the ­burkini, for use by Muslim female swimmers
  • The Ban: Recently, a collective of French mayors, troubled by the attire’s presence on French beaches, banned it
  • The Debate: The move sparked a global ­debate on women’s freedom of choice, which the ban seems to have violated


Across the English Channel, the warm summer beaches of England have been flooded with burkinis. At the same time, France and other European countries are caught in a bitter debate over the ban of this now highly popular outfit. In fact, since the ban, the online sale of the burkini has risen by 200 per cent. In the UK, a group of int­ernet pranksters carried out a staged social experiment to see how people react to a burkini-clad woman being asked to leave a British beach. Unaware of the ongoing enactment, two female passers-by stopped and confronted the prankster in police uniform and told him he could not do that. “It’s religious. It’s not what terrorists wear,” one hollered. As more people on the beach began questioning the pol­ice-uniformed actor and asked for his badge number, the pranksters gave up. 

Marks & Spencer’s much contested burkha-bikini hybrid, launched in the UK in March, has sold out, although it was criticised in France by politicians. While the burkini gained popularity after celebrity chef Nigella Lawson was pictured wearing it on Australia’s Bondi Beach in 2011, exp­laining that she did not like having to reapply factor 50 sunscreen after swimming, writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was “hot with indignation” over M&S’s new range. She said, “These companies might not think they are encou­raging fanaticism, but they are. They’re complicit in a version of Islam that believes women must be subjugated in public.” The ban has faced criticism across the world and John Dalhuisen, Amnesty Intern­ational’s Eur­ope director said: “By overturning a discriminatory ban that is fuelled by and is fuelling prejudice and intolerance, today’s decision has drawn an important line in the sand. French aut­horities must now drop the pretence that these measures do anything to protect the rights of women. Rather, inv­asive and discriminatory measures such as these restrict women’s choices and are an assault on their freedoms of expression, religion and right to non-discrimination.”

Aheda Zanetti, an Australian-Lebanese who designed and named the burkini said: “This negativity that is happening now and what is happening in France makes me so sad. I hope it’s not because of racism. I think they have misunderstood a garment that is so positive—it symbolises leisure and happiness and fun and fitness and health and now they are demanding women get off the beach and back into their kitchens?”

Dr Jill Stuart, a visiting fellow at London School of Economics’s department of government, said, “In my personal opinion I am disgusted by the ban, and horrified by images of armed police forcing women to take clothing off.”

Mayors of about 30 French Mediterran­ean coast resorts, who introduced the ban after the Nice attacks, remain determined to continue even after the French state council ruled it to be illegal. It has become a powerful political tool, which will be used in France by right-wing politicians like Nicholas Sarkozy in the run-up to the elections next year. German and Norwegian right-wingers have also supported the ban. In Egypt, some resorts and restaurants ban veils entirely and the wearing of burkini outfits in swimming pools.

No Ripples Here

A pic of Christian nuns posted online by an Italian imam

The burkini has become a meaningless symbol of a larger problem of Islamic radicalisation in Europe, which politicians, who brought it upon themselves, are not ready to face. In a face-saving move, France has now decided to form an Islamic foundation funded solely with money from within the country to improve relations with Muslims. But as Shelina Janmohamed, the British author of Love in a Headscarf, said, “It is not the form of the burkini that’s at stake, it’s some kind of meaning that is imposed upon it. When we try and stitch together ideas of immigration and what women should and should not wear for reasons of security and terrorism, then we are approaching the issue the wrong way.”

Patrice Rolland, a professor of public law at the University of Paris-Est Creteil said, “The French Republic is secular. So this obligation and calls for ‘neutrality’—which is the hallmark of the state—is only imposed on public services, services provided by the state and public officers. A private person who’s bathing or who’s simply walking on the streets is not subject to the principle of neutrality or secularity.” Rolland added that the ban was “started by a right-wing mayor and mayors of the right tend to use secularism relentlessly—an argument for everything which hides under it—a bit of xenophobia, fear and discrimination.”

A religious freedom expert at the University of Toulouse, Rim-Sarah Alou­ane, argued, “Women’s rights imply the right of a woman to cover up,” and added that the burkini “was created by western Muslim women who wanted to conciliate their faith and desire to dress modestly with recreational activities.

“What is more French than sitting on a beach in the sand? We are telling Muslims that no matter what you do...we don’t want you here.”

At a time when Germany is talking about conscription and advising its citizens to stockpile essential supplies in case of a major terrorist attack, it is unlikely that the burkini ban will save even a single life.

The reality is that the burkini ban has exposed France’s national crisis, which now threatens to dominate it’s presidential campaign, as rivals scramble to position themselves on the hot-button issue.

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