The burkini: A right or an infringement of rights?

Azza Radwan Sedky
Thursday 1 Sep 2016

The decision of France's highest court to suspend the ban on the "burkini" is the right one, because women have the right to choose

If you don’t know what a burkini is then you must be living in an off-the-beaten-track location unaware of the happenings in this world. If so, let me tell you what it is. It is head to toe swimwear that leaves only the face, hands and feet exposed.

The burkini was created, according to the designer, Aheda Zanetti, to give a woman freedom, not to take it from her, and — to Zanetti — it symbolises leisure, health, fitness, and enjoyment.

The burkini or its replicates has been popular for several years amongst Egyptian women. I’ve even seen some wear a bikini on top, which defeats the purpose of the whole thing. I never thought much about it and accepted it as a better alternative to the “galabiyas,” the long loose dresses that end up clinging to a woman’s body revealing more than not.

Marks and Spencer has been selling the burkini in Libya and Dubai for several years, but added it to its main store in London last year and online this year. Marks and Spencer announced that its 2016 burkini collection sold out, proof it is a desirable outfit many covet. 

Then came the French burkini dilemma. Dozens of city mayors in France banned it from their beaches. Cannes, Nice, Villeneuve-Loubet and the Corsican Island, Sisco, banned the burkini in assumed defence of France’s secular laws, incompatibility with French values, and misogynistic views that consider a woman’s body shameful. 

French Minister Manuel Valls, defending the ban, said the burkini “enslaves” women. To him, the burkini is a “political project,” and doing nothing about it makes French cities vulnerable to Islamists.

Then the photo of the armed policemen demanding a woman to remove her burkini on a Nice beach went viral with some hailing the effort as the appropriate disciplinary measure while others deeming it a flagrant outcry against Muslims. Then more photos surfaced: of women being fined, some threatened with pepper spray, and many more humiliated as they are asked to remove their burkinis.

Social and standard media went both ways on this one, and the world, today, is divided. Some consider it a way to deny women the right to freely choose what to wear, that the ban is as oppressive as the Islamic State (IS) group asking women to hide behind the niqab. The same group fails to see what banning a woman wearing a burkini on the beach has to do with preventing terrorism and is shocked that Muslim women in France must go half naked or not go to the beach at all. To this group, the ban is an invasive encroachment on women's choices. 

The other campaign approved of the ban and asked these women to return to their Muslim countries; or otherwise, be forbidden from partaking in beach activities. This campaign saw the ban as a necessary move to curb the terrorism and fundamentalism sweeping across Europe.

Here are my two cents. It is a woman’s choice to wear what she pleases — a hijab, a niqab, or a burkini, despite my not going that route myself. No one will tell me what to wear and I hope that circumstances never force upon me a certain dress code.

Nevertheless, I don’t want women to be told what not to wear either: it is their own prerogative to do as they please. And what is happening in France is a method of policing women and suppressing their rights.

And I’m all for assimilation, it being part and parcel of modern societies, but innate beliefs, the principles of modesty that many of these women have grown up with, and the right to enjoy life outweigh the constraint of having to take off one’s clothes if the concept does not appeal to one.

More importantly, such an attitude will ultimately exclude Muslims from the general frame of French society. It is all about inclusion versus exclusion.

At that particular moment on that particular beach, that woman is acting on her own free will. No misogynist is there to tell her what to do and no one is dictating his supremacy over her. She is opting to take that route because she wants to and no one should take this from her.

I’m also certain that a woman wearing a burkini cannot possibly be a terrorist since such demands clandestinity.

Those who opt to wear a burkini are moderate Muslims who want both to enjoy life while adhering to Muslim guidelines. In fact, I would encourage such women to do just that, which may lead them to open up to more involvement in their societies.

Today, many a swimmer prefers to wear protective clothing such as long sleeved t-shirts and hats to avoid the sun; “Rash Guards,” long sleeved swimming suits that protect against the sun’s rays are in, and yet a 34-year-old woman, Siam, was fined by police on the beach in Cannes for wearing leggings and a headscarf. Where will the French draw the line?

Would the French allow a swimming bonnet but not a headscarf? Would they allow a wetsuit but not a burkini?

At a time when Olympian fencers, taekwondo competitors, and weightlifters are permitted to compete while wearing a hijab; at a time when beach volley players wear full-body suits amidst bikini clad competitors as the world cheers on, I don’t see a burkini as offensive as all that. In fact, the world may soon see swimmers wearing a full body suit as they compete in swimming heats. This would leave France in a tight corner: the world accepts as France prohibits. 

At a time when Scotland and Canada let their police force wear the hijab, France is worried about a swimsuit. At a time when Canada allows a woman to take the oath of citizenship in a niqab, France separates between its citizens.

To vent their frustration at the whole concept, some are calling on French officials to ban fat men in speedos from appearing in public, finding the sight more offensive than a burkini. Others have posted photos of nuns in full attire gleefully jumping in the sea water —don’t they have rights, too?

Even Nigella Lawson, the British cooking diva, opted to wear a burkini on a beach once. Why? Because her then husband didn’t like her to tan. What would the mayors of Nice and Cannes say to that?

A burkini is definitely not very attractive, but it certainly uninhibits some women and allows them to do more of what they like to do.

And today, France’s highest court rightfully suspended the ban on the burkini saying that the ban seriously and legally breached fundamental freedoms. I hail the suspension as a wise decision. Well done, France!

The writer is author of Cairo Rewind: The First Two Years of Egypt's Revolution.

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