In recent weeks, three French towns have banned the wearing of the burkini from their beaches. The swimsuit, designed to cover Muslim women ‘appropriately’, showing only the hands, face and feet, contradicts French laws on secularism according to the Mayors of Cannes, Villeneuve-Lobet and the island of Corsica.
The ban has been backed by the French women’s minister Laurence Rossignol, who states that it shouldn’t been seen in the context of terrorism, but as a symbol of oppression against women, for its purpose in hiding women ‘to better control them.’ France has history in this regard, having previously banned symbols or clothes that conspicuously display religious affiliation from public schools in 2004. This includes the hijab, which only covers the head, and not the face or other parts of the body.
In other countries, such as the Netherlands, concern has focused more on veiling of the face i.e. the burqa or niqab. In the UK, we have no bans, only an increasing unease with the veiling, which is reflected in increased abuse towards Muslim women following terror attacks anywhere in Europe. In their religious dress, women are the most noticeable and therefore an easy target.
It’s impossible to divide this from the terror threat, given France’s recent experiences of Islamic terror. The Corsica ban followed a fight that broke out between locals and a Muslim family on one of their beaches, although it’s not clear whether the woman involved was actually wearing a burkini or not. In some ways, who can blame the Mayor of Cannes for viewing the burkini as a symbol of the West-hating forces that brutally attacked his neighbours in Nice only last month?
As a secularist and a feminist, I struggle with this debate. If I had a magic wand, I would erase religion from the world, as in my view, it has done as much to divide, control and impoverish humanity as the lust for power and riches. It creates wars, and sets people against each other. As a feminist, I abhor the practice of covering women. In Islamic countries, it is part of the system that prevents women from holding the same rights as men and speaks of subjugation, even if some of those women still go on to be doctors, lawyers, teachers and so on. I would not want my son to be taught by a woman wearing a niqab in a Scottish school because I don’t want him to think it’s okay for women to be hidden from view. Aside from anything, I think it would be pretty scary for young kids to be taught maths from someone who looks Darth Vadar.
Does that make me a ‘racist’? I don’t think so. I wouldn’t want him to be taught by nuns either, as they inevitably answer tricky questions with mumbo jumbo religious answers. As a younger woman, I applauded the French decision to remove religious symbolism from schools, but as an older, wiser one, I have my doubts. And those doubts boil down to principles of freedom and the exclusion of young women and girls from the possibility of an education. Because whether we like it or not, these bans don’t change the behaviour of those being targeted. It just means that less people have access to something that might change their lives and give them more options and freedom in the future.
The same applies to the burkini. I first saw women swimming in the sea this way in Tunisia, about seven years ago. Except they weren’t wearing burkinis, just their normal, long sleeved clothes and hijabs. You could see how their clothes clung to them, and were heavy and wet. Yet, they wanted to swim and for them, this was clearly the only way. It will be the same for many other women across Europe now. In those days, you didn’t see lots of Tunisian women in the veil and they looked strange among the western tourists in swimsuits and bikinis.
In Scotland, I don’t think they would look so strange. Despite our deliriously beautiful beaches, the sea is freezing and people going into the sea in wetsuits or extra clothing is a typical sight, even in summer. After a traumatic time in the North Sea last year, I briefly considered the purchase of one of Marks & Spencer’s new burkinis for my holiday this year (although my plan was to cut the head off). It would have had the double whammy of keeping me warm, while allowing me to relinquish the painful ritual of pubic hair removal that is deemed essential to avoid scaring other swimmers on the beach. I abandoned the plan after realising that it was just a glorified swimsuit that would provide no heat whatsoever, only coverage. A wetsuit was also discarded after it left me feeling like a beached whale in neoprene, so I went into the sea in my gym leggings and t-shirt. Add long sleeves and a hoodie and it wouldn’t have looked so different.
Obviously in the Mediterranean, there is little need to wear warm clothing. But if I, as a white woman went into the sea in such a costume, would I perceived as a terror threat, a symbol of war against French freedom? What if a Muslim woman wears a wetsuit with a headscarf or swimming cap? Will they ban wetsuits? Or just ban Muslims in wetsuits? It’s a road fraught with dangers and obstacles to everyone’s liberty. And western nations end up as guilty of human rights travesties as those they criticize.
Religion and politics aside, what about health? We should be doing everything we can to encourage girls and women to take up exercise and sport. This, now famous, image from the current Olympic games shows the Egyptian women’s beach volleyball team against the Germans.
The inclusion of these women was only possible in recent times, since the rules of clothing for female athletes changed to allow arm coverage. The German players (like most other women’s teams) are dressed in shorts that appear capable of inducing atomic wedgies. For some women, not just Muslims, the tiny costumes of some female sports must be as off putting as the thought of wearing a full body suit. Interestingly, the men seem to be able to play in longer, baggy shorts, so it’s not just for sporting reasons that the women are in such small outfits. However, what’s really important is that women athletes wear the right clothes to help them perform the best they can.
Ultimately, I believe that it’s ridiculous for women to be fully covered for sports, especially when they’re going to be so hot and sweaty. But if that’s what it takes for women to get involved, I’m all in favour. If that means women-only swimming sessions in the local pool then I’m in favour too. I’m sure all kinds of women who want to avoid the male gaze while in a state of near nudity, would be too.
And if it means that women need covered costumes for the sea, then so be it. A burkini or a wet suit doesn’t really have much room for a bomb or a gun. It’s for swimming not killing. I worry that these ideas will spread across the channel, that we too become obsessed by the fear of the other. The fear is on the rise right now, as probably most Muslims in Britain will tell you.
We all need to be vigilant against terror and hate speech on all sides. But we also need to be vigilant of our personal freedoms and our rights as citizens to participate in everyday activities. Like taking a dip in the sea, no matter your religious affiliation.
Until next time,