Last week a shocking image rocked the Internet: a woman fully clothed on a beach, surrounded by policemen was being forced to take off her clothes. The image hit shortly after the burkini ban was announced in coastal towns in the south of France.
For those who still ask, what a burkini actually is, it’s a modest swimwear outfit that covers a woman from the neck down to the ankles and is worn in place of a swimsuit. It can also include a bonnet or a loose scarf for women who choose to cover their hair while swimming. For those who have never seen one, it looks like a wetsuit that divers, surfers, and numerous other people wear when participating in water sports.
The ban has been lifted, but the wounds made during the controversy remain. The burkini ban came only six years after the ban on face coverings, such as niqab, and twelve years after the ban on wearing religious symbols, such as hijab, in public schools, in the country that promises liberté, egalité, and fraternité to all.
But unfortunately egalité or equality doesn’t apply to everyone, certainly not to Muslim women. The continuous change of laws in France demonstrates that Muslims continue to be targeted and discriminated against, despite the French government’s insistence that they’re not. Whether it’s the hijab, the burka, the niqab, or a burkini, the French have a problem with it.
The French brand of secularisation, or complete separation of religion and state, has manifested itself in these bans, which attempt to police women’s bodies and what is put on them. According to this brand of secularism, women shouldn’t be dressing in ways that identify them as the “other”. They need to integrate into the population and keep the banned items of clothing at home. Else are seen as symbols of religion as dangerous, as they oppress women and prevent them from participating in society.
They fail to see the burkini as an aid to participating in society. Before the invention of the burkini, few Muslim women were ever seen on beaches or by the pool. If they chose to dress modestly, there wasn’t much they could do in the water without exposing their bodies. Because of that many Muslim women don’t know how to swim. With the invention of the burkini, and other modest swimwear options, Muslim women were finally able to go swimming or do other water sports without showing an inch of skin. It was made to help them engage in water sports, without compromising their belief in modesty.
But unfortunately, the French fail to see this. They simply see the burkini as yet another piece of Muslim clothing that restricts women and forces them to hide their bodies. They fail to see that many Muslim women choose to dress modestly. They are not forced by their fathers, brothers, or husbands to do so, but they firmly believe in dressing modestly. But by banning pieces of clothing like the burkini, the hijab, and the niqab, they are no different than the men who do force women to dress modestly. Either way, men continue to dictate what women wear. It’s still oppression, all in the name of Western freedom.
This sexism is clear when you look at the design and purpose of the burkini. For all intents and purposes, it’s no different than a wetsuit that many men wear for water sports. But wetsuits aren’t what are being targeted here, even though they cover the same body parts. Only the burkini is seen as a symbol of oppression and a foreign presence.
Clothing is meaningless until it’s put on a body and we give it meaning. This becomes obvious when you take a look at the way the French continue to legitimize certain pieces of clothing and not others, even though they’re the same. It all depends on who’s wearing it and why. For example, a wetsuit on a man’s body is acceptable while a burkini aka wetsuit on a visibly coloured woman is unacceptable. A maxi skirt or dress worn as a fashion statement is acceptable while a maxi skirt or dress worn by a hijabi is unacceptable. A nun’s habit is acceptable while a Muslim woman’s hijab or burka is unacceptable.
After a week of appeals and international outrage, the burkini ban has been lifted for now. Some policymakers in France continue to be adamant that they will introduce it more formally later down the line. Whether they eventually do reintroduce the ban or not, it’s plain that France will continue to police women’s bodies as the country continues to be a place where a bikini equals freedom and a burkini equals oppression, and there is no room for anything in between.
Ikhlas Hussain is the founder-owner of the popular lifestyle blog and website The Muslim Girl, and is based in Toronto, Canada.