No burkinis sur la plage s’il vous plait
This photo by Charles Roffey was taken in Turkey, in 2009, of course. Such a scenario would not be tolerated today, at least not in the public beaches and pools of Cannes and Villeneuve-Loubet, two cities on the famous French Riviera, where the burkini has been banned until the end of August. Yesterday, the island of Corsica joined them making it clear that the French will not tolerate the burkini.
The swimming costume that covers the whole body except for hands, feet and face is known as burkini. It’s a new word born from the fusion of bikini with burka - the full body covering garment worn by some Muslim women when in public - thus making its purpose very clear: to hide the female body whilst on the beach, allowing her to swim without revealing her figure.
When the burkini made its first appearances in Western beaches in the end of the Noughties, it was received with discomfort. It clearly set the women wearing them apart from the rest of the crowd that was just trying to tan as much of their bodies as they could.
The French, of course, didn’t like it. A women wearing a burkini was banned from a pool in the outskirts of Paris in 2009 due to “hygiene reasons”. One of the arguments that, seven years later, allegedly motivated David Lisnard, the mayor of Cannes, to ban what is, in fact, a kind of wetsuit with a hood. Women wearing the burniki in public beaches and pools will have to remove it or leave, facing a fine of 38 euros (about 33 pounds).
France has a history with Muslim attire. Even tough Islam is the second largest religion in the country, its traditional veil - called hijab - has been a controversial issue since 1990 when three girls were expelled from a public school for wearing it. The arguments against the hijab were based on the French principle of secularism (Laïcité) and the need to protect that separation between state and religion in public life. Since then, a lot of successful books have been written on the subject, but not a lot of progress has been made in terms of integrating the Muslim community within French society.
Critics of the French decision to ban the burkini believe that it is a measure that is going to isolate even more this part of the population from the wider community. “People are always complaining that Muslims should integrate more, but when we join you for a swim that’s not right either”, Maryam Ouiles told the BBC. Ouilles, a Muslim woman from Gloucester (UK), says she wears the burkini so she can play with her children at the pool and at the beach. "Why is it necessary for us to show off our bodies when we don't want to?", she asks.
Of course the recent beach bans of a garment that is associated with Islam come in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that France has suffered this year. It’s worth bearing in mind that the Bastille Day Attack took place in neighbour Nice, also in the French Riviera, about three weeks before the mayor of Cannes banned the burkini from his city’s public beaches. It is thus being presented as a “protective measure”, as Lisnard explained to The New York Times. “If a woman goes swimming in a burkini, that could draw a crowd and disrupt public order,” the mayor said. “It is precisely to protect these women that I took this decision. The burkini is the uniform of extremist Islamism, not of the Muslim religion”.
Recent events at the French island of Corsica may suggest there is some truth to Lisnard’s argument. Local authorities say that four people, including a pregnant woman, were taken to the hospital for treatment after a violent episode took place at a beach in the commune of Sisco during the weekend. Problems started after a man complained that a group of teenagers were taking pictures of his wife who was wearing a burkini. The episode sparked violent clashes between villagers and three Muslim families that led to Corsica's announcement that they would too ban the burkini from their beaches.
But would Lisnard and the other French mayors have the nerve to ban Nigella Lawson from their beaches? Would there be a public outrage if the person under the burkina was a celebrity chef? Apparently the answer is no. When in 2011 a British woman that happens to be famous for her cooking skills chose to wore a full head-to-toe black suit with a hoodie to go swimming in Australia it was a very different story. Yes, the image of Nigella in a burkini made headlines in newspapers and websites worldwide, but it did not infuriate people, it bewildered them.
If the French burkini bans make us wonder if we are prepared to really integrate Muslim’s into the wider society, Nigella’s outfit should propel a reflection about our expectations of the female body and the right we assume to have over it. As Madeleine Bunting wrote in an article about Nigella’s burkini for the The Guardian: “On a beach, a woman is expected to expose her body, and it's that refusal which has captured attention”.
On the French Riviera the female body is supposed to be free. It was there that Brigitte Bardot made the bikini popular - and acceptable. Dreamy pictures of B.B. having a cigarette whilst sunbathing topless made the 1960s a decade of liberation and set the tone for a new kind of woman, a more confident female that was not afraid to venture outside the conventions. Sadly, being a beach rebel in 2016 means you are not showing any skin. Freedom does not mean going topless, it means going in whatever direction you want to go. Let's not forget that.