Don’t Fight Terror on the Backs of Women Wearing Burkinis

Anyone who defends the rights of women to bare their shoulders, legs and hair must also defend the right of women to choose to cover them up.

A woman in a burkini, or full-body swimsuit designed for Muslim women and another in more revealing swimwear on August 16, 2016, at a beach northeast of Tunis.
Fethi Belaid/AFP

Stroll along the beaches of Israel and you’ll see slender chic young women in the latest tiny bathing suits sunbathe alongside middle-aged women in tank tops and shorts and baseball caps and others swathed in long robes from head to toe.

It’s not unique - from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, in Lebanon, Egypt or Morocco, the Middle East coastline features a diversity of female swimwear.

The amount of skin a woman chooses to expose varies for many reasons. Some women cover up because they are protective of their complexions, or worried about skin cancer. Others are merely self-conscious about a few extra pounds and don’t feel comfortable letting it all hang out.

And yes - many do so because of religion, refusing to leave their commitment to modest dress behind when they hit the beach. Muslim mothers frolic with their children in the waves, the kids in bathing suits, the mom fully dressed in hijab billowing over soaking wet jeans.

Orthodox Jewish women wade into the water with skirts on top of long biking shorts. Who knows - if you’re lucky, you might even catch a Catholic nun wading into the water in her habit.

The discomfort of getting water and sand stuck when fully clothed on the beach has driven a new booming market of “modest swimwear” for those who don’t want to let their religious observance prevent them from hitting the shore in summertime.

Companies bearing names like SeaModest or Hydrochic, many founded by enterprising observant Jewish, Muslim, or Christian women supply everything from a swimming dress to the full-body coverage plus headgear known as a burkini.

The new trend has been viewed as a welcome development liberating religious women, allowing those who don’t bare all to get wet and enjoy the beach and sunshine with their friends and families instead of staying home. 

Muslim models display burkini swimsuits at a shop in Sydney, Australia, on August 19, 2016.
Saeed Khan/AFP

The news that in a growing number of towns on the French Riviera, wearing a burkini has become a criminal act came as a shock to those of us who are used to seeing covered women on the shore. We’re used to Europe preaching tolerance and diversity to the Middle East - not the other way around.

Some of the excuses that French politicians have been citing for the bans are patently absurd. Justifying it on ‘hygienic’ grounds is utterly illogical. Entering the sea - and certainly a swimming pool - in a clean water-resistant full-length bathing costume - essentially identical to a surfer’s wet suit, as many on social media have pointed out - is far cleaner than wading in the water in one’s clothing.

The most illogical reason for criminalizing the swimwear is security - the burkini bans, according to reports out of France - were triggered after an incident when tourists on the island of Corsica tried to photograph women in burkinis and a scuffle broke out.

The mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, said that he was banning the Muslim women’s swimwear in order to “protect” them. “If a woman goes swimming in a burkini, that could draw a crowd and disrupt public order.”

Those who are honest don’t hide the fact that their real agenda is ideological. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls put his cards on the table when he stated that he supported the ban on the grounds that burkinis were “the instrument of a political project, a counter-society based on enslaving women” and “not compatible with France’s values.”

Such opposition is an extension of the historically difficult French relationship with the veil and other outward signs of non-Christian religious observance - French Muslim girls aren’t allowed to wear hijab to public schools, and many French Jews feel the need to put a hat over their yarmulkes when they hit the streets so that they blend in.

The burkini ban is a pathetic attempt to deny that there is no escape from the fact that the population of France now includes deeply observant Muslims - not even at the beach. 

The real reason for the ban, of course, is fear. It is a panicked response by politicians who feel helpless in the face of the new wave of terrorism - the Paris attacks, and more recently, the horrific incident took 85 lives in the terrible Bastille Day attack in Nice.

Dangerously, the sentiment seems to be growing and becoming more populist - the number of municipalities banning burkinis (including Nice) has reached eleven, and in the southern town of Heuralt, an anti-burkini rally drew 200 protesters.

If there’s any country that understands the fear of terrorism and need for security (and overreaction to it) it’s Israel. But even in our ultra-security conscious state, banning a burkini or any garment meant to allow women of any religion, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, to fully participate in a recreational activity and remain modest would be viewed as over the top, ineffective, and counter-productive.  

In any serious struggle, it is important to choose one’s battles - and female swimwear definitely doesn’t top the list. In fact, it is a boomerang issue, which will make French Muslims feel even more unwelcome and angry over their mothers, sisters and wives being made to feel like criminals for their religious observance, driving them into the arms of the very extremism the French authorities claim to be fighting against. 

Anyone who defends the rights of women to bare their shoulders, legs and hair must also defend the right of women to choose to cover them up. It isn’t up to powerful men to determine what women put on - or take off - their bodies.

Rabbis and imams shouldn’t dictate that women cover up entirely because any glimpse of their skin awakens male sexual urges that make them uncomfortable.

But neither should mayors and prime ministers demand that women wear a skimpy bathing suit or refrain from going to the beach because a burkini reminds them that they share their country with a highly religious Muslim population.

The battle against violent religious fundamentalism and terror shouldn’t be fought on the backs of women. Denying them the right to freely choose what to wear isn’t protection - it is oppression, pure and simple.