Banning burkinis: It doesn’t stop terrorism but it does curtail women’s freedom 11



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In Nice, France, four armed policemen forced a woman on the beach to remove her burkini, a designer bathing suit that allows religious Muslim women to dress modestly and to swim. The Mayor of Nice declared this was necessary to stop terrorism.

Certainly France has seen plenty of that recently with the mass murder at the Charlie Hebdo office, to the soccer stadium and Bataclan, and siege of the peaceful Promenade des Anglais in Nice.

“Nice is the most recent French resort to ban the burkini, following bans in the Corsican town of Disco, and the Riviera resorts of Cannes and Villeneuve-Loubet,” writes Harry Cockburn for the Independent.

These vicious attacks have fuelled intense Islamophobia in response. However, restricting the dress of Muslims in public places crosses a boundary in that it can be perceived as curtailing religious freedom.

Relying on banning religiously prescribed clothing in France is nothing new. A law in 2004 banned the wearing of overt religious symbols in public primary and secondary schools. It included wearing the Jewish kippa, large crosses, and the hijab, but affected disproportionately those wearing the hijab because there are few parochial schools for Muslims, so they have no choice but to go to state schools.

These laws are only the latest to penalise Muslim women in the name of France’s national precept of secularism, or ‘laïcit — headscarves have been banned in public schools since 2004, and the niqab, or full-face veil, has been verboten in public places since 2011.

None of these restrictions have stopped terrorism, though they may have limited religious freedom and freedom of expression through attire.

In America, the same tactics of limiting fashion options, particularly for women have been used over and over again. Many American women have been asked to leave public places because they are nursing a baby even if, like the French Muslim women, they are more covered than most of those around them. This one I know from personal experience. In college, we were forced to wear a trench coat over our knee-length Bermuda shorts when they first came out.

Now in France they are punishing women on the beach for being too covered. This rule has no rhyme or reason from a modesty viewpoint since there are many bare-chested, bikini-clad European women on French beaches. And, since health experts are telling us we should cover ourselves to protect ourselves from the sun, we know it’s not about getting vitamin D. Why is the woman in a T-shirt and jeans allowed on the beach when a woman in a burkini is not? What about the nun in full regalia? All are covered head to toe. Is it Xenophobia? Islamophobia? Misogyny? Would a nun on the beach in Nice be asked by armed policemen to remove her habit? We see the bias and hypocrisy.

Too much cover, too little cover, we women just can’t do it right. This obsession with our attire is all about our perceived irresistibility as sexual objects. I suppose we should be flattered!

From a capitalist viewpoint France’s ban on burkinis at beaches is a boon. The Australian designer who thought of the notion of a burkini has benefitted. Sales have gone up 200 per cent since the ban. She has opened her market by insisting the burkini gives women freedom. Freedom to go out in the sun if they have cancer or are on chemotherapy, and freedom to be both religious and physically fit. True and true!

But this too is not the whole story. Dictating conservative dress has long been touted as a way to protect women’s freedom. As in “she can walk safely at night if only she didn’t wear a mini-skirt or a low cut dress or…”

As we delve deeper we see that this kind of outfit is a boon to many of us who want to cover what we’ve been taught to think of as ugly or provocative. Varicose veins, cellulite, and scars. Breasts, and legs.

Burkini by other names can unite many religious groups: orthodox Jews might turn the pants into a long skirt and Mormons might fashion it like the undergarments they are required to wear. Oh the opportunity for Victoria’s Secret, not only lacy and colored bikini underwear, but they could really go to town designing exquisite undergarments and peignoir sets for every religious group. This is the beginning of a retail fashion gold mine!

It is not, however, a solution to the problem of terrorism which is the reason the Mayor of Nice proudly declares he is curtailing by this action. We can understand his desperation to protect his city and its beautiful beaches and to maintain tourism, such an important source of revenue for Nice and the rest of the French Riviera.

Banning burkinis on the beach, besides curtailing women’s freedom, would hardly be an effective deterrent to terrorists. No, this is just another example of using women’s bodies to avoid the complicated and expensive social issues. This also seems another example of overzealous policing, because police can’t stop terrorism or violence they can at least do something. We know how racial profiling has led to many black deaths in America. We can’t condone a sideshow of action to stand in for real counterterrorism.

This is a distraction, a way to make some people feel the police are doing something. Perhaps it’s not so different from American politicians who focus on restricting women’s choices by opposing abortion rather than improving maternity care, childcare, and wages, which might actually reduce the need to abort unplanned children.

We all want to get rid of terrorists, but restricting women’s dress isn’t going to do it. Toning down rhetoric, education, and realistic expectations of what government and politics and revolution can actually accomplish would probably be much more effective strategies.

In the meantime, while we personally choose to have the free fresh wind on our skin we support letting others coverup–that is a personal choice to be respected and protected. Freedom for all women, of whatever religious and personal beliefs, to cover themselves, wear scanty bikinis, or only the ‘outfit’ God gave them on the beach must be protected and defended. Whatever works to keep us healthy and happy and does not hurt others seems like a good fashion option! Thank you, creative designers! Keep on giving us clothing choices that allow for our many selves and our individual tastes and preferences.

What do you think about this issue? Share your thoughts with us.

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Author’s Note: Since this piece was written, the highest French Court overturned the burkini ban in one of the Rivera towns, Villeneuve-Loubet, of course, the controversy continues. The White House weighed in, in favour of religious freedom.

Ruth Nemzoff

Dr. Ruth Nemzoff is a resident scholar at Brandeis University's Women's Studies Research Center. She lectures on parenting adult children, relationships and family dynamics. Her papers are archived at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she also holds a doctorate in social policy. She has served three terms in the New Hampshire Legislature and was New Hampshire Deputy Commissioner of Health and Welfare. She is the mother of four adult children, four in-law children and grandmother of eight. She lives in Brookline, MA with her husband Harris Berman, Dean of Tufts University School of Medicine.

  1. Burkini without the headscarf part would be ok. I would consider wearing one………….

    1 REPLY
    • What is the difference between the ‘headscarf part’ and wearing a bathing cap, which many women still wear!

  2. I feel very much against a full face covering, but as long as one is not indecently exposed, I think we have a right to dress in the way we feel comfortable. There will always be people who haven’t a clue about dress sense and wear clothing that’s inappropriate for a particular occasion – you can’t legislate for that. It is ironic that some people complain that Muslim women wear the clothing they do because they are being dictated to by their religion or their menfolk, yet they are happy for the “dress police” to dictate what they should wear. Whose opinion counts? Where will it end? Will surfers in full body wetsuits be required to strip off? Restricting women’s clothing choices does not in any way protect us against terrorism.

  3. Very good article..thank you. I am against all the clothing of Islamic women but I have no problem with the head scarf. Australia is NOT in the middle of the dessert. The head scarf is the only part of the dress that is religious..sorry if this offends but it is the man that dictates the dress of their women. but on saying all this it is their choice..but NOT the face covering that has got to go.
    Now as for this new suit for the beach..very strange to us who wear western swim suits and even less..but as long as they don’t start dividing the beach up were Muslims have one part and us the other (which has happened in swimming pools) and the way we pander to them it could happen.

    1 REPLY
    • So, you are also against the Nun’s habit? Despite what you may think, many Islamic women choose to wear the head scarf, which incidentally does not cover the face, and they are not dictated to by their husbands/fathers. Very few of them would actually wear the burka. I think that the hijab is lovely and all power to those women who choose to wear it, I don’t have any problem with them being worn by anyone.

  4. While working in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I went to a resort in Al Khobar for a couple of days. We (two western women) were told that we could dress any way we chose, without abayas, and even wear bathers, as this was a resort. However, only men and children were permitted in the swimming pool. Women could swim in the ocean in the nearby lagoon. There were women in full niqab covering, sitting on plastic chairs in the shallows. Other women in niqabs were riding jet-skis – that was quite a sight! We swam in bathers, under the constant stare of cameras, as other women pretend to take pics of their kids, and then pointed at us instead.
    This would be the kind of behaviour they want to avoid in France.

    1 REPLY
    • I can’t help bt laugh when I think of the original “bathing costumes” of Victoriana days! They were pretty much as covered as these burkinis! Women: cover up as much as you like, except the face. That is the window to the world, and it’s rude not “interract” with other humans via facial expressions. Yep, cover up, and be vulnerable to ricketts, ie., vitamin D deficiancy.

  5. If they swim in all that and get into difficulties, it would put lifesavers at more risk than if they had less material floating round!

  6. I can’t help bt laugh when I think of the original “bathing costumes” of Victoriana days! They were pretty much as covered as these burkinis! Women: cover up as much as you like, except the face. That is the window to the world, and it’s rude not “interract” with other humans via facial expressions. Yep, cover up, and be vulnerable to ricketts, ie., vitamin D deficiancy.

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