To burqini or not to burqini

beach body

After Cannes and Villeneuve-Loubet on the French Riviera, Sisco on the island of Corsica became the third municipality to ban wearing of burqini on local beaches. The ban follows on the heels of a mini-riot a few days ago, which started when Muslim men took offence to tourists taking photos of their burqini-clad women bathing in the sea, and which took a hundred French cops to break up (there are other claims that the riot ensued after three Moroccan men attempted to “privatise” a part of public beach for themselves by hurling insults and stones at any non-Muslim beach-goers). Either way, so much for fun in the sun.

The burqini ban is one of those issues where I feel very conflicted.

On the one hand I’m not a fan of authorities banning things. I generally believe that what people wear is their business and everyone should be allowed to wear as little (though I guess there are some libertarian limits even here) or as much on as they want, not to mention whatever style, colour, cut and fabric they choose. Variety is a spice of life; plus we need pretentious fashionista wankers to laugh at.

A further argument in this context is that banning women from wearing burqinis will not result in them putting on bikinis instead, but in them not going to the beach at all. Just as banning burqas and niqabs will merely serve to further socially isolate those Muslim women, whose husbands, fathers or brothers will not let them step out of their homes dressed in anything more revealing.

Some might argue, well, a Western woman can’t go to a Saudi beach in a string bikini, so why should we allow Muslim women to wear burqinis on our beaches (a similar argument is made in relations to construction of religious buildings and many other aspects of life and religious observance). To this, others might answer, yes, that’s true, but we are better than that (to the extent one can use normative, value-laden terms like “better” in our morally and culturally relativist culture); we are who and what we are in the West because we are open, liberal and tolerant, and our lives are richer for it.

On the other hand, I know I’m not the only one who find a full body covering confronting. The Koran requires women to dress modestly; burqas and niqabs are relatively late theo-vestimental (I believe I’ve just invented a new term) invention for which we once again have largely the Puritanical Wahhabis to thank. Behind the superficial rationalisations about protecting female virtue and honour lie some pretty ugly beliefs that treat women as a quasi-property of men (and their chastity as some sort of an intangible asset, akin in my mind to business goodwill), and that men are animals inflamed with unspeakable passions and urges at the sight of an even tiniest amount of female flesh (which in certain cultures indeed becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy). As such, the full body coverings are a political as much as a religious statement that communicate messages about worth, control and separateness. This also raises another point, namely to what extent Muslim women wear burqas and burqinis because they don’t have any other choice given to them by their men.

Am I against modest attire? I don’t know if the Amish women ever go to the beach and if they do, if they bathe in their full length dresses and aprons. Would we want to ban Amishini too and if not, would that make us hypocrites and Islamophobes? Maybe, but maybe not, because the traditional Amish costumes are largely devoid of ideological baggage. The majority of Amish don’t believe in establishing a world-wide Amish kingdom under the Deuteronomic law, and Amish extremists aren’t blowing themselves up at the airports while yelling “Jesus is the Lord”.

And that’s precisely one additional aspect, a sinister one, to burqas and niqabs – to too many of their male proponents, these garments are ideological weapons against the rest of the unbelieving world. Burqas and niqabs are pretty harmless in themselves, except perhaps to those women who feel forced to wear them, but rest of the religious-political ideology they stand as one of the symbols of is far from harmless. To me, these clothes represent a refusal to assimilate and accommodate to the host country’s culture and mores, and a vailed threat (pun not intended) or a challenge, a gauntlet thrown at the feet of the largely feckless West, that those who keep their women wholly covered, expect in the longer term us to change, accept and submit to them and their faith/ideology, rather than them making an effort to fit in, like most migrants have always done throughout history. Quite simply, burqa – and niqab and burqini – are a Wahhabi-interpreted Sharia translated into fashion.

The liberal in me is battling with the theocracy-hater in me. I still don’t know which one will win in the end.