Burkini: When men tell women to undress for modesty's sake

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Ban the Burkini sign

Ban the Burkini sign

Women’s burkini swimwear seems to provoke controversy. In 1907, the Australian world champion swimmer, Annette Kellerman, was arrested by police for indecency. Her ‘crime’ was to wear a one-piece swim suit that stopped above her knees. Decades later the bikini was banned in several countries after its first appearance in 1946. Proclaimed ‘sinful’ by the Vatican, the fashion magazine Modern Girl Magazine wrote in 1957 that "it is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing".

And now there’s the burkini, swimwear that covers everything except a woman’s face, hands and feet. It’s popular with some Muslim women who want modest clothing. This August in France over twenty coastal municipalities declared a ban on burkinis. Dozens of women have since been fined for wearing a burkini based on the grounds that the outfit does not respect “good morals and secularism”. In Nice, four police officers demanded that a Muslim woman lying on the beach remove her long-sleeved tunic. Photographs of the incident went viral and prompted an international debate. While France’s highest administrative court has ruled that the burkini ban of the town of Villeneuve-Loubet is illegal, mayors of other communities with similar laws have refused to lift their bans.

This issue interests me for many reasons. On a personal level, it makes me angry when men try to dictate what women and girls should or should not wear. I am also interested in the whole concept of modesty. Why do different parts of the body need to be covered or uncovered? I have Mormon relatives in the US who, because of their religious convictions, believe in dressing modestly. There is a thriving business in the US in modest clothing. It did not surprise me when I learned that Mormons (who are Christian) also buy burkinis, along with some Jews and Hindus. It’s all part of the link between clothes and identity. This made me feel that it was important for the TRC to have a burkini in its collection. It would be the latest example of veiling to add to the TRC’s fascinating collection of face veils, burqas, chadors, head scarves and other veiling textiles, some of which can be seen in the upcoming, two-day TRC course on veiling on 4-5 November.

I knew a little about the burkini from reading the book The Swimsuit: Fashion from Poolside to Catwalk, by Christine Schmidt, in the TRC library. I started searching the internet to learn more. The burkini was invented around 2004 in Australia, when the Lebanese-Australian woman Aheda Zanetti founded her sportswear business (http://www.ahiida.com). She wanted to encourage Muslim women and girls to get involved in all sports, not just swimming. In 2007 she was asked by Australian authorities to design a swim suit suitable for Muslim women life guards. She combined a long sleeved tunic that fell above the knees with an attached hood, and long loose pants, all in a water-repellent polyester material. She called this two-piece garment a burqini (also spelled burkini), a word she made up by combining the words ‘burqa’ and ‘bikini’.

Australian burkini

Australian burkini

According to newspaper accounts, the sales of burqinis have more than doubled since the bans in France. The popular British clothing chain Marks & Spencer in London had sold out of their burkinis when I checked. Zanetti has been quoted as stating that, while her main market is Muslim women, women from other religions, and no religion, buy her burqinis. The British television cook Nigella Lawson, who is not Muslim, made a stir five years ago when she was photographed wearing a burqini on an Australian beach. Men, too, buy the garment, as it offers more protection against the sun than other swim wear. Zanetti has been quoted as saying that those calling for a ban have missed the point of her design. She created the garment to promote leisure, good health and fun, to free Muslim women and girls to participate more in public life. To me, whether one sees the burkini as a symbol of freedom or of oppression, it shows once again the fascination and power of textiles as markers of human identity.

18 September 2016, Shelley Anderson

 

 

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