The Burkini: Is it even complicated? Kind of, but not really

This week a few burkini-related items came across my newsfeed because of the municipal ban on burkinis at some French beaches, including Nice.

The idea of women being forced to change out of their clothing of choice at the beach is pretty shocking. There is literal policing of women’s clothing choices going on. See this article.

French police ticket a woman at a beach. Photo credit:

The municipalities in France that have banned the burkini say they’ve done it because “religious” clothing incites violence. France banned the burqa some time ago. But according to French law, not all religions are equal. Christianity and Judaism are excluded from the ban — you will never see a nun getting a ticket at the beach.

Is it okay to ban these forms of dress? I’m going to say that it’s not. In the vast majority of cases, the violence that Muslim women’s clothing incites is against the women who are wearing it. If anything, they need police protection, not police scrutiny.

But, some say, it’s not only about inciting violence. The niqab, hijab, and burqa, and therefore by extension the burkini, are — it is argued — oppressive. Therefore (those claiming this view say), banning this clothing is a win for the women who “are forced” to wear it. So the argument goes.

The debate about “the veil” is one area where Western feminists ventured in with uninformed opinions about how they “in the West” need to “rescue” oppressed Muslim women. I think non-Muslim feminists are rightly cautious about weighing in on this debate these days, flinging around their opinions about oppression in an oft-misunderstood and misrepresented religion. Julie Bindel represents the (what I now think of as) old-school feminist view that Westerners should be alarmed and speak out against the birqa and veil. But even she doesn’t think it should be outlawed.

This issue remains a live debate within Muslim religion and culture. Yasmin Adhai-Brown writes in The Guardian that “As a Muslim woman, I see the veil as a rejection of progressive values.”

Naaz Modan, posting at the website Muslim Girl, attributes the ban to a history of Islamophobia in France. She contests the mayor of Cannes’ idea that the burkini is a symbol of “extremist Islamism, not the Muslim religion.” Modan writes:

However, it seems that the ban has more to do with underlying Islamophobia than it does with public safety. Not only is the burkini unaffiliated with Islamic extremism, but the ordinance also states, “Access to beaches and for swimming is banned to anyone who does not have [bathing apparel] which respects good customs and secularism,” suggesting that Lisnard and his supporters believe wearing the a modest headscarf instead of a pseudo underwear and bra is disrespectful to the country’s moral and secular foundation.

My own view is this: the French legislation is not helping, and it’s not up to French politicians to legislate women’s clothing choices, especially when very similar clothing is not contested:

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 5.15.14 PMThe woman who invented the burkini, Aheda Zinetti, says “I created the burkini to give women freedom, not take it away.” Without it, women who choose this form of covering would not be able to go swimming or spend time on the beach.

It’s also not lost on me that there is a whole history of sexism surrounding the bikini as well–the original pin-up girls all wore bikinis. The most controversial issue of Sports Illustrated, hotly anticipated every year, has always been the swimsuit issue full of non-athlete models striking sexy poses in bikinis.

Not that the bikini should be banned either. I have a whole drawer full of bikinis myself. And I’ll wear them when I wish, thank you very much.

But the idea of fixating on one type of beach wear as if its more acceptable alternative (I get that there are other types of suits available on the continuum of bikini to burkini) has no troubled history of its own just screams out “racist double standard.”

And it’s not okay. And surely French law makers and enforcers have better things to do than shrinking the opportunities and choices of some Muslim women.

The issue of what the Muslim choice to cover oneself represents, whether it is indeed a choice, is complicated. But the issue of whether governments at any level should be able to create laws that restrict clothing choices on the basis of religion is not. The answer is “no.”

Update: France’s highest court overturns the burkini bans.

7 thoughts on “The Burkini: Is it even complicated? Kind of, but not really

  1. It wasn’t all that long ago, in the U.S., where you could get fined for wearing LESS than what the burkini covers. And that went for men as well as women. Now the conservatives are all for uncovering people.

    This isn’t about “freedom” – it’s about fear. Yet another overreaction to a few extremists being seen as representing an entire religion. Sigh. The French have been through a lot lately. Perhaps their better natures will emerge eventually.

  2. I used to be pro-burka when I believed it was a thing of choice. The problem is that veiling laws came 2000 years before Islam or Christianity. It was the man’s way of subjugating a woman (identifying her as solely sexual) – but giving back freedom by allowing her to go outside. It’s not a religious law. It’s a n extremely discriminating patriarchal law. It is associated more with extremism because most religions have done away with it, but the extremists still enforce it.

    Frankly – while I agree that burkas should be done away with (women only wear it because they’ve been raised in a male-mentality society or culture), I don’t believe we should shame or ban women for a law created by men. We need to educate people more on the history of women and then maybe the veilings will go away on their own.

  3. Oui en France, il y a de quoi avoir peur, dans les magasins nous croisons des femmes fantôme, enfin peut être car sous les burkas on ne sait pas ce qu’il y a : un mec en arme avec une ceinture d’explosifs ou une femme.
    Si je vais dans un pays musulman je me soumets à leurs coutumes, alors qu’ils respectent aussi le pays où ils sont les hôtes, nos coutumes sont là, alors RESPECT.

    1. I think it’s relevant that France considers itself to be a liberal democracy, so there is a higher expectation of freedom of choice. Also, the clothing restrictions clearly single out Muslim forms of dress. You could just as easily hide explosives under a nun’s habit, a parka, a shawl, a wedding dress, a karate suit, a ball gown…the list is endless. So that makes this look peemiciously arbitrary.

  4. I think that there should be freedom to wear whatever a person likes. NIGELLA LAWSON

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