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The Burkini Debate

Staff Writer

Anna Silk ‘18

· Anna Silk

All over Paris, posters advertise an exhibition celebrating 70 years of the bikini at the Galerie Joseph Froissart with a glamorous brunette in a yellow bikini staring off into the distance. On one poster near the Bir Hakeim metro station, a handwritten note is scrawled on the model’s bare midriff: “Et burkini interdit?” translating to, “And the burkini is forbidden?” This note perfectly encapsulates the debate in France today over the wearing of the burkini, highlighting the public tension of celebrating a staple of women’s beachwear since the 1950s amidst condemnation of Muslim communities’ adaptation to this beach-going outfit.

Over 25 towns in Southern France banned burkinis on public beaches in late July and early August of this year. The ban arose after a terrorist attack was perpetrated by a lone wolf actor claiming ties to ISIS on the Nice waterfront during Bastille Day. While a response to the terrorist attack is necessary and important to initiate, banning the burkini only creates more alienation among and discrimination against the Muslim community in France, which will only inspire further tensions.

Proponents of the ban, such as former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, cite the burkini as an issue of “security” because it is against secularism and can be associated with extremist Islam, inspiring undue attention on the beach and causing safety concerns. However, the burkini, designed in 2004, allows women the freedom to pick a modest and wearable form of swimming attire; it was not created as a symbol of terrorism. Stereotyping the Muslim faith to connote the burkini with extremism is a gross misjudgment. The banning of the burkini punishes innocent women who adhere to their personal faith, and for many Muslim women, this is the only way they are able to enjoy the sand and water and swim. What makes a burkini different from a similar style of swimwear in China popular with beachgoers who do not want to incur sun damage? It is the stigmatization of the burkini as an object of clothing associated with the Muslim community. The burkini ban will only lead to an ingrained sense of disrespect for Islamic culture and practice that will become more widespread.

Proponents of the ban, such as former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, cite the burkini as an issue of “security” because it is against secularism and can be associated with extremist Islam, inspiring undue attention on the beach and causing safety concerns. However, the burkini, designed in 2004, allows women the freedom to pick a modest and wearable form of swimming attire; it was not created as a symbol of terrorism. Stereotyping the Muslim faith to connote the burkini with extremism is a gross misjudgment. The banning of the burkini punishes innocent women who adhere to their personal faith, and for many Muslim women, this is the only way they are able to enjoy the sand and water and swim. What makes a burkini different from a similar style of swimwear in China popular with beachgoers who do not want to incur sun damage? It is the stigmatization of the burkini as an object of clothing associated with the Muslim community. The burkini ban will only lead to an ingrained sense of disrespect for Islamic culture and practice that will become more widespread.

Women’s clothing has been consistently stigmatized throughout history. In its early years, the bikini succumbed to scrutiny, eliciting fines from those caught wearing it on certain beaches in Italy and France. In the United States, girls’ clothing in schools, such as leggings or sleeveless shirts, have come under fire by those who propose that the clothing is too revealing. At my all-girls high school, our uniform skirt, initially up to the students to decide how to wear it, was suddenly deemed too inappropriate, inspiring a rule to require the skirt to be knee length. While this is not the same thing as condemning a religious community’s right to religious freedom, it is another example of limiting women’s freedom of expression in a sexist manner. And while the bikini and girl’s clothing was always punished for its inappropriateness, the burkini is now punished for its tasteful modesty. In our world today, we simultaneously condemn wearing “too little” and “too much” clothing. This contradiction can also be seen in the ban’s adherence to France’s “laicite,” or, secularism, which draws a very sharp line between church and state. Under laicite, France has banned the wearing of the burqa at schools and institutions under the state’s control. Laicite’s argument is that by erasing any symbols of religious difference in the public sphere, society can thus be more equal. Having police officers patrol beaches and publicly humiliate and fine women wearing the burkini only highlights inequality by directly targeting women and their choice of dress. In a democratic society, the ban directly marginalizes and alienates a specific religious community and limits women’s freedoms. Again, the contradiction abounds.

Major cities in the French Riviera such as Nice and Cannes have begun a movement to remove the ban, which is a sign of progress. In a country that values republicanism and democracy, banning the burkini is a regressive action that infringes on the freedoms and liberties of women in France. We must stand up against the targeting and shaming of women for their clothing. The choice should be theirs.

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