(…The same way some people think it’s cool to scrutinize women’s clothing choices)
Have you ever heard of a burkini? The term just began to arise in the news quite recently. In the wake of the Bastille Day attacks in France earlier this summer, multiple areas in Nice took to a new sort of precaution — the banning of the burkini from all public beaches. The French prime minister Manuel Valls called the burkini “a symbol of enslavement of women.”
Before going into the specifics of the controversy, let’s start with the basics. The burkini is a hybrid of the popular hijab and a bikini. Originally created by Lebanese-born Australian Aheda Zanetti, the swimsuit was invented in 2004 as a way to accommodate her habit-wearing niece who wanted to play sports. While the swimwear was originally a one-of-a-kind outfit created to accommodate the modesty of Muslim women’s dress, the idea has since been picked up by other companies such as Veilkini, East Essence and YEESAM. The general outfit consists of a long sleeved tunic that reaches the knee, along with long pants and an attached head covering.
While the ban has since been overturned by France’s highest court, this swimsuit sparked conversations worldwide about what it means to freely express one’s religion, one’s womanhood and one’s body. Police officers were stationed on French beaches surrounding Nice this past summer to watch for burkinis, and were told to demand women change if they spotted one.
Many western citizens argued that they supported the ban by means of promoting France’s mission of a secular country, but others have disagreed. According to Britain’s International Business Times, out of 1001 French people surveyed, 64 percent were against people wearing the burkini on beaches, 30 percent were indifferent and 6 percent were supportive. This is essentially a discussion of a woman’s right to choose what she wants to wear. Supporting the ban on burkinis is just as limiting to a woman’s rights as forcing her to strip.
I wanted to understand what my own peers knew about the bans. As any millennial would, I looked to the internet for my answer. In an online survey I took of thirty anonymous participants between the ages of 14 and 66 from Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe and North America only three were unaware of the recent burkini bans. This reflects the newfound knowledge of them since France’s ruling, as only two of the thirty had actually worn one before and the large majority had never known anyone who wore one.
A question that sparked controversy in the survey was whether or not one should dress to fit into the culture of the place they’re visiting. While 50 percent said no, 20 percent said in most cases and the other 30 percent had various more detailed responses. One survey respondent said “Everyone should dress in what makes them comfortable whether that means fitting in or not,” while another said “Respect is key when visiting a foreign place and mirroring the customs of the local culture is one way to show that respect. However, no one should ever be forced to wear something that compromises their religious beliefs or makes them feel insecure in their own body.”
Meanwhile on social media various conversations about the burkini blew up. There were people from all parts of the world shouting at each other and criticizing every aspect of Muslim women’s lives. “Public stonings and beheading should be allowed also, if you are going to surrender to Islam, don’t go half way!”
Amongst those who stood up against these harsh critics of the Islamic religion was Fatimah Omz, a 35-year-old Muslim woman living in Australia. When discussing the recent burkini bans, she wasn’t one to shy away from the essentials of the debate.
“The world at the moment is against all things Islam,” Omz said. “It has always been like that but it is slowly getting worse. Whatever is linked to Islam, the media [is] creating hype about it. [The] law is working against us to banish our religion from existence. ”
Omz has been wearing a burkini for ten years now, ever since she started wearing the hijab. In her opinion, “Wearing clothes never has been considered disrespectful. At a job interview, you are not allowed to attend half naked. You must be fully clothed,” she said. “Therefore clothes [have become a symbol of] respect. [W]hen a county wants the people that are visiting to wear more clothes, it’s okay. But a country that wants you to strip naked, then that is not okay.”
Germany is also debating the incorporation of traditional Muslim dressings in their public spaces. Currently the only seven countries that have a full or partial ban on face coverings are France, Belgium, Egypt, Switzerland, Italy, Chad and the Netherlands. In light of the one million migrants Germany who became residents of in the past year, there’s been a discussion of a partial ban on face veils in schools, universities, and while driving. Omz had strong opinions on this point as well.
“As I said earlier, there is a strong [attack to] slowly banishing the Islamic religion,” she said. “I don’t agree with face coverings. But I don’t agree with a man telling us what we should and shouldn’t wear. If a woman considers it her religion to cover her face, then she should be allowed to worship as she chooses.”
While burkinis have been under fire lately, there’s yet to be anyone to criticize similar undertakings of other groups of people. In China a popular trend is the facekini, a full body covering that looks essentially like a wetsuit attached to a ski mask. In Orthodox Judaism, women also cover up their bodies, modesty serving as another way to express their faith. So why is it that burkinis are the ones to be so heavily attacked?
The answer to this is simple. There is clear, painfully evident Islamophobia in Western cultures. The Muslim religion is under fire because of it’s ties to the terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda. And while it may seem to be getting better because the France’s burkini ban was technically overturned, this is far from the truth. The fact that a country would ban an item of clothing in the first place signifies some sort prejudice or concern for that group of people. This debate is based on sexism, Islamophobia, and racism and while the overturning of the law was a good thing it would not have been necessary if hateful laws like this weren’t put into place.
Western cultures are scared of cultures that are “new” or “different” from what they’re used to. This blatant hatred of the Islamic community is not going to improve until people begin to acknowledge the fact that harsh and racist laws are unjust. The false stereotyping must come to an end in order to allow everyone their basic religious rights and freedoms, something that many countries were founded upon in their early development.
As Omz put it, “I think people should stop listening to mainstream media and start thinking for themselves. Anyone can quote a few words and pretend it’s coming from the Quran. Pick up the Quran and study what Islam is before making assumptions about our beautiful religion.”
Makai Andrews is a freshman writing major who thinks swimwear should only matter to the rad person rocking it. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.