The ban on the Islamic burkini, or full-body swimsuit, on the beaches of the French Riviera has triggered heated debates and controversies. For some, it is a ban on freedom of choice; for others, the ban is a symbol of Islamist extremism. For me, however, it triggers painful memories of another struggle by women in the Muslim world who were stripped of the right to make their own choice on the matter.
“Maybe it is not a good idea to swim on a public beach,” one of my mother’s friends once told me with a stern look on his face. He then added, “You would be harassed in such a conservative culture as ours.” I was only 11 at the time and was struggling to swim. To be honest, I was just trying to enjoy the sea and the water. Still, many Egyptians believe swimming is an activity that could trigger unwanted attention, even at that tender age.
In a country like Egypt, swimming is a luxury, especially for girls; only those who can afford to pay the membership fees of posh sports clubs have access to swimming pools. Yes, Egypt is blessed with many public beaches, but like all public spaces, they have become havens for men harassing women by gazing, staring, and even groping them. Consequently, despite the fact that Egypt has some well-known female swimmers such as Farida Osman, many girls miss the opportunity to engage in the wonderful sport of swimming during childhood. I was one of those unfortunate girls. My mother could not afford the sport club’s fee. I missed out on swimming until I eventually took swimming classes as an adult in England. I had to put up with disdainful looks as I clumsily tried to float in the water among children aged four and five, until I eventually learned to swim.
The evolution of swimming costumes in Muslim societies has been linked to two main factors: the rise of political Islam and the urbanization of Muslim societies. Up until the Seventies in Egypt, female swimming costumes were widely accepted on public beaches without any harassment. That was due mainly to the predominance of the relatively liberal, middle-class elite in urban areas.
That changed during the Eighties. Reverse engineering of cultural attitudes started with the rise of Islamism and the emergence of a neo-middle class, mostly conservative Muslims, many of whom were expats working in ultra-conservative Gulf States. This new culture embodied a strict new doctrine, which held that a woman’s body was a source of Islamist identity. As this new doctrine gained in popularity, social pressure mounted, forcing women to cover their bodies to maintain their “honor.” Any uncovered woman was deemed loose, decadent, and attention seeking. Such religious bullying forced many Muslim women to avoid swimming altogether, unless they had the means to join wealthy sport clubs or own a villa in exclusive compounds at posh sea resorts. As a result, the ghettoization of the Egyptian social scene became the new norm.
Gradually, the Islamic dress code permeated the entire Arab and Muslim world, including Muslim communities in many Western countries. The introduction of the burkini in the early 2000s by a Muslim woman in Australia was a creative move to adapt to beach-style life in Australia. Subsequently, the popularity of the burkini gained ground among many neo-middle class conservative Muslims who wanted to reconcile their religious beliefs with their posh life style.
So what is wrong with the burkini?
As a liberal woman, I have no problem with the burkini because I believe in freedom of choice, but as a Muslim woman, I find the burkini problematic for two reasons.
First, it symbolizes a perception that women who cover up within the Muslim world are superior to those who do not: When concealing flesh is considered to be the morally correct interpretation of God’s order, it automatically places the covered woman in a higher moral league. Less covered women have no option but to put up with a lower-league status or cover their bodies. Even non-hijabi women are expected to refrain from showing more flesh by wearing a swimming costume that conforms with commonly accepted customs. God forbid if a Muslim woman opted to wear a bikini. That alone would label her simply as a whore.
Second, many Islamists advocate total segregation, and are not content with the burkini. One might presume that once Muslim women agree to cover up fully, the pro-regressionists will finally leave them alone. But the opposite is true. The more women give in and cover up, the more the advocates of regression will raise the stakes higher. Many scholars advocate a dress code that does not stick to the body or reveal a silhouette of its shape. For them, the burkini is problematic, as they prefer total segregation between men and women on beaches. Completely segregated Islamist beach resorts are common in Iran, and have started to appear in Turkey and other Muslim countries.
It may surprise many, but the harassment of women on public beaches, which is prevalent in Muslim countries, is almost negligible in Western countries, despite the revealing swimming costumes many women wear. Even in Egypt, the harassment of non-burkini wearing women is much less in upmarket beach resorts. This phenomenon destroys the main pillar of the Islamist argument that covering up protects women. In fact, the obsession with covering the flesh only triggers more misogyny and paranoia. In a strict, regressive environment, when the flesh is covered, desperate men will focus on a women’s looks, the way she moves, and her body language.
The debate on the ban of the burkini in France is yet another example that the troubles of the Middle East do not remain in the Middle East. Yes, the design of the burkini originated in Australia, but the ideology behind it is purely Middle Eastern. The burkini sums up some Muslim women’s struggle to please themselves, their societies, and their perceptions of Islam.
Burkini-wearing women and their supporters, however, cannot confront Islamophobia without addressing the hypocrisy in their native countries. If the advocates of the burkini are really genuine in their call for freedom of choice, they should confront the emotional bullying that links women’s bodies with honor. All people, including non-burkini Muslim women, should have freedom of choice. Muslim women who opt to wear ordinary swimming costumes only want to enjoy the simple pleasure of feeling the sea waves caressing their skin and touching their hair, without external judgment of their morals or religious beliefs. Once the concept of equality and diversity is accepted in Muslim countries, it will empower Muslims to defend the burkini in Western countries. Let’s be frank: prejudice in this context originated within the Muslim communities, and will never be solved until Muslims truly embrace freedom for all, and not just for burkini-wearing women.