The ‘Burkini Issue’ Reveals What Happens When Women Take Control

By Elayne Clift: 

Vermont (Women’s Feature Service) – In France, a woman is publicly humiliated when the police force her to remove her burkini while she is at the beach. In another incident, an Australian woman is made to leave a French Riviera beach because she is wearing a burkini. Stories like these abound. But France’s burkini ban, a headliner for months now, is really nothing new nor is it confined to beaches in France.

As a blogger on Women’s Media Center posted, “the insidious concept that women’s clothing can and should be chosen and regulated for them is a continuing issue.” The blogger, identified only as Chloe H., pointed out that the bikini was also criticised when it appeared seventy years ago. In 1950s Italy the scant swimsuit was actually banned for a time while in the US one-piece swimsuits were banned in the early 1900s. Swimsuits with skirts also took a hit, with the ‘Washington Post’ claiming in 1907 that they “endangered the morals of children” and should be stopped by the police.

Soon after that period in our history the post-World War I flappers came along. They were condemned for clothing changes designed for comfort and ease of movement. Girls were said to have “parked” their corsets in order to dance. Coco Chanel had women bind their breasts with strips of cloth for that “garçonne” (little boy) look, while waistlines dropped and hems rose, to the chagrin of the patriarchs.

The point is, men (who also incidentally make up the majority of designers) have been telling women how to dress, how to cover or expose themselves, how to be demure or deadly, for a very long time, and women have had enough. “It is sexist and patronising,” remarked Chloe H., adding “Women should be able to express themselves through their attire jut as freely as men.”

For Muslim women, that expression can mean embracing the idea of being fully covered, even at the beach. For that reason, Aheda Zanetti created the burkini in 2004 “to give women freedom,” as she put it to the ‘Guardian’. Adds the Brooklyn-based Muslim designer Nailah Lymus, “Covering identifies us, but it doesn’t define us.”

The issue isn’t only germane to Europe and the US. A recent New York Times story featured “an Islamic Fashion Revolution” in Turkey in which modest dress is enlivened by colour and creative design. According to a Muslim fashion blogger in London who attended Istanbul Modest Fashion Week, “there are a lot of Muslim girls who wear the hijab, and we like fashion.”

But while modest Muslim dress might be blossoming in Turkey, things are not so bright in Egypt. According to Heba Habib, writing in the ‘Washington Post’, two women who were enjoying a swim in the pool at a Red Sea resort recently were told to leave the pool because they were wearing burkinis, known in the Arab world as “Islamic swimwear.” The manager went so far as to have a group of male employees get into the pool in their underwear to mock the women, then ordered workers to contaminate the water with chlorine and nitric acid.

Meanwhile, France has ruled that the burkini bans are illegal and violate fundamental liberties such as freedom of movement, conscience and personal liberty. This was good news all around but particularly to Zanetti, who saw her burkini design as allowing Muslim women to participate in western culture.

The larger issue here is that patriarchy prevails when it comes to how women dress and that has got to stop. Whether it’s lawyers who bring up a woman’s clothing in rape trials or conservative pundits commenting on Hillary Clinton’s pants suits, or even bans on women nursing in public, enough already with the policing of women’s clothes or how much of themselves they choose to expose.

There was a time when the Portrait of Madame X in her black décolleté gown by John Singer Sargent sent shock waves through the parlors of Park Avenue and Paris. Fortunately, that time passed. We’ve moved on from one piece and skirted swimsuits and the shock of flapper freedom. Now we need to let it go altogether when it comes to women’s clothing choices, even when we find them personally offensive. Surely we can give up the burkini fiasco just as we moved beyond bonnets and bikinis.

And surely we can make our own fashion decisions without permission from Daddy, designers or demagogues. Wouldn’t that constitute the most freeing and creative design of them all? Why, it’s enough to make a woman want to create her own runway show!