To wear or not to wear: the battle of the bikinis

By Sneha Gray

In the aftermath of the latest terrorist attacks, the most recent battleground is on the beaches of France. The latest war of the bikinisvsburkinis is the tip of a much deeper and wider iceberg, and was stastock-photo-burkini-vs-bikini-traffic-sign-with-two-options-classical-swimsuit-versus-bathing-clothes-for-469484654rted by the Mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard. It’s a battle of two ideologies; a battle for the meaning of freedom and democracy, and the future of France and western democracy as we know it.

On the one hand we have the French mayors, who, having been affected by multiple terror attacks, think that prohibiting
burkinis (a type of full body swimwear) is a way to put an end to what they view as a symbol of extremism, while those that wear the burkini say that they choose to wear the burkina or a burka as a symbol of their freedom of choice.

Proponents of the ban suggest that the burqa (full-body garment), the face veil, the headscarf, or hijab are signs of oppression against women and had no place in the 21st century world. If one were to think that way though, surely, then, the unrealistic expectation of beauty, bikini-body and image expected of a modern woman can also be considered oppressive to many.

Whatever the case may be, surely banning a piece of costume is in the very least undemocratic and autocratic, and unlikely to curb terrorism.  Like many of you here in New Zealand, come summer, my family and I enjoy our country’s beauty in one of our many beaches. While I look forward to hanging around in shorts, t-shirts, or a bikini, some in my circle of friends and family, especially the older members, choose not to. They can’t think of anything worse than walking along Ohope Beach in a bikini. They are fully attired in their long light coloured leggings, loose white shirts, and a wide brimmed sun-hat. Were we in Cannes, would these lovely ladies be asked to strip down too? Therein lies my dilemma on how these French mayors think they can police this idea and where the boundaries lie.

On the other side of the coin, I have personally observed and disagreed with subtle word associations of “modesty” and “decency”  aligned to burkas and burkinis.  It’s dropped in casually in conversations, interviews or articles by proponents of the burka or a head scarf. In her opinion piece in the Guardian[1], the creator of the burkini, Aheda Zanetti, says that her creation came out of a need to find something practical for the beach or to partake in sports but that was also “modest”. Sh
e says that up until that point, “we didn’t participate in anything because we chose to be modest.” The Dictionary defines modesty as “dressing or behaving so as to avoid impropriety or indecency, especially to avoid attracting sexual attention.”  While I applaud Ms Zanetti’s entrepreneurial spirit for creating a niche and filling a much needed gap in the swimsuit market, reading between the lines, I am not so sure about her implication that those of us not complying with the rules of the burka are i
mmodest or indecent. Besides, I don’t wear shorts and t-shirt to “attract sexual attention,” but because I feel comfortable in them.

Having grown up in Asia, I am aware that there are certain factions of Islam, that my Muslim friends have warned me about who want to Islamify the world by getting the west rid of “immorality” and the “indecent” way in which they perceive Western lifestyles. Many Muslim authors have expressed concerns about the resurgence of head and body coverings. Author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown[2] says, “Like a half-naked woman, a veiled female to me represents an affront to female dignity, autonomy and potential. Both are marionettes, and have internalised messages about femaleness.”

Writers Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa[3] in their Washington Post article pleaded with people not to wear the hijab in the name of interfaith solidarity. According to them, “the ‘hijab’ is a symbol of an interpretation of Islam we reject that believes that women are a sexual distraction to men, who are weak, and thus must not be tempted by the sight of our hair. We don’t buy it. This ideology promotes a social attitude that absolves men of sexually harassing women and puts the onus on the victim to protect herself by covering up.”

It seems like this debate is much larger, wider and deeper than whether one wears a bikini or a burkini. It hits right at the heart of who we are and who we want to be. We’re amateurs in paradise and therefore will never be perfect until paradise is found, but within all our imperfections we can find
common ground if we truly seek it.

Personally, it is my view that people should be allowed to wear what they want. I also think cultures evolve and we should all evolve with it. Take for example, medieval or even Victorian England where women wore scarfs and hat to cover their hair; or the fact that women had to cover their head at church. Most of us have moved on. Likewise, in their time, many Muslims may choose to change their preferences too. However, we can’t force them to do so if they choose to wear a burka or a burkini. Leave them be. It’s their choice. The beginning of the decline of democracy occurs when we take the freedom of choice from one sector of the population. For us to keep our freedom – our freedom of choice in clothing, in education, in marriage, in life – we need to let others have theirs too, even though sometimes we may not understand it.  Focus on the things that unite us, not divide us and this way our sons and daughters can find more common ground than us.

Who’d have thought that the future of our cultures and ideology is determined by what we wear to the beach.