On Female Modesty, the Burkini and Its Ban in France
The burkini is a form of religious modesty swimwear, intended for those who believe that Islam requires women to bare no more skin in public (where men not your close kin can see you) than what appears on the face, the hands and the feet (1)
It looks like a wetsuit-tunic combination:
Modesty swimwear is also available for Christian women. An example of the types of outfits I've seen for sale can be found here.
That religious modesty swimwear is marketed to both Christian women and Muslim women doesn't mean that the two markets are equally large.
My guess (2) is that many more Muslim than Christian women are affected by the religious stipulations for women to be modest. The Christian female modesty clothing is aimed at the fundamentalist market, whereas the Muslim female modesty clothing is aimed at a much wider market of women.
But what the two types of modesty swimwear share, of course, is that religious concepts of modesty are thousand times more often about women's dress, women's bodies and women's behavior than about men's dress, bodies or behavior.
That's something thoughtful people should keep in mind when reading about the recent events in the south of France: The ban of the burkini on the beaches of some thirty seaside towns and cities, including Nice, where 80+ people died in a terrorist attack on Bastille day this July.
The Nice ban has been overturned by a court, and so have the bans in some other cities (3). The court's argument concerning the Nice ban is worth quoting, because it also tells us about the motives behind the ban: The argument that the wear of the burkini poses a risk to public order:
A court in Nice suspended the city's burkini ban, citing insufficient grounds to justify the controversial decree.
In the ruling Thursday, judges from Nice's administrative tribunal court said the full-length swimsuit worn by some Muslim women did not pose a risk to public order on the French Riviera city's beaches.
The case was brought by the Collective Against Islamophobia -- a group of human rights activists who have been helping a number of women challenge fines. They argued that the ban is discriminatory, unconstitutional and that there has been no evidence to suggest that wearing a burkini has contributed to any acts of public disorder.
Over 30 towns -- largely situated along France's southeast coastline -- initially imposed a ban on the divisive swimwear.
The control of women's clothing has a long history everywhere, and the French burkini bans can be slotted into that history. At the same time, these bans are also the reverse of most of the past regulations about women's bodies in the public sphere: They amount to demands that women bare more skin, not less skin.
That's because the current case is not directly about controlling women's sexuality or about assigning them the complete duty of sexual gate-keeping, but about something different:
The fear of extremist religious terrorism, the belief (most likely to be false) that the burkini signals its wearer's allegiance to such terrorism, the definition of what it means to be French, what it means to be secular in the public sphere, and other similar questions.
While most regulations of women's swimwear have historically focused on enforcing female modesty and the duty of female sexual gate-keeping, this case is different: Modesty in the West has usually been employed as the counter-argument to individual women's demands to decide for themselves what to wear on the beach, but in the burkini ban modesty and those individual demands are on the same side, at least if we only look at the top layers of the case (4).
Feminists React To The Ban. Or The Man Behind The Curtain.
One particular feminist take of the burkini ban is about the news that a woman on the beach had been made to strip some layers of her clothing by a policeman. This take is a good example of the general feminist arguments I read in the social media:
The attached text states:
100 years later women's bodies are still being controlled by men
The juxtaposition of the two pictures is delicious, and so is the one sentence summary. I almost feel regret in my determination to strip more layers from both, as on one level that summary is correct: Not only do we see two male police officers controlling the swimwear of two women, but what women have been allowed to wear in various cultures and during various time periods has always ultimately depended on what the powerful men in that place and at that time allowed.
The obvious place to start peeling off more layers in the above argument is to note that the two police officers are men, yes, but they are also employees of some government units, tasked with doing what they appear to be doing in the pictures (5).
The ones truly in charge are those who ordered the police to the beaches, those who politically pushed for the controls and, ultimately, those groups which have or had the societal power to enforce their views on others. In the past, in particular, this elaboration wouldn't have made much of a difference, because that societal power was overwhelmingly in male hands, though women have never been completely powerless, especially inside various public morality movements.
Today, on the other hand, some of the mayors ordering the burkini bans might well be women, and a female police officer could have been easily found to be captured in a similar snapshot to the one on the right in the above picture.
That's about the surface level of the two pictures. The next layer that deserves stripping has to do with this argument:
What female choice might be in the examples of the two pictures is unclear. The impression I get from the combination of the pictures with the short and succinct summary is that the control is what the policemen are doing and that what the two women in the pictures represent is female choice.
But reality is more complicated than that, because the outfits of the two women in those pictures are also (but not completely) a reflection of male influence. That is what I call the "man behind the curtain" (from the Wizard of Oz).
Take the example of the bikini, the closest I could get to discussing the history of today's generally more "revealing" swimwear for women in the West (of the type demonstrated in the left picture above). Though something looking like the bikini is known to have existed in the antiquity, the modern bikini owes its beginnings to a man: A French engineer, Louis Réard, introduced the bikini in 1946:
French engineer Louis Réard introduced the modern bikini, modeled by Micheline Bernardini, on July 5, 1946, borrowing the name for his design from the Bikini Atoll, where post-war testing on the atomic bomb was happening.Note the contexts in which the bikini was first popularized: In a beauty pageant, by movie actresses viewed as sexually enticing, in a James Bond movie, and by such male-oriented publications as the Playboy and Sports Illustrated.
French women welcomed the design but the Catholic Church, some media, and a majority of the public initially thought the design was risqué or even scandalous. Contestants in the first Miss World beauty pageant wore them in 1951, but the bikini was then banned from the competition. Actress Bridget [sic] Bardot drew attention when she was photographed wearing a bikini on the beach during the Cannes Film Festival in 1953. Other actresses, including Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner, also gathered press attention when they wore bikinis. During the early 1960s, the design appeared on the cover of Playboy and Sports Illustrated, giving it additional legitimacy. Ursula Andress made a huge impact when she emerged from the surf wearing what is now an iconic bikini in the James Bond movie Dr. No (1962). The deer skin bikini Raquel Welch wore in the film One Million Years B.C. (1966) turned her into an international sex symbol and was described as a definitive look of the 1960s.
Thus, while the bikini is not something enforced on women by men, neither is it something women just decided to wear all on their own, as a demonstration of women's empowerment (6).
On the other hand, those who have opposed the bikini have also included powerful male religious leaders, including the Vatican:
The swimsuit was declared sinful by the Vatican and was banned in Spain, Portugal and Italy, three countries neighboring France, as well as Belgium and Australia, and it remained prohibited in many US states.
Writer Meredith Hall wrote in her memoir that till 1965 one could get a citation for wearing a bikini in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire.
In 1951, the first Miss World contest, originally the Festival Bikini Contest, was organized by Eric Morley as a mid-century advertisement for swimwear at the Festival of Britain. The press welcomed the spectacle and referred to it as Miss World, and Morley registered the name as a trademark. When, the winner Kiki Håkansson from Sweden, was crowned in a bikini, countries with religious traditions threatened to withdraw delegates. The bikinis were outlawed and evening gowns introduced instead. Håkansson remains the only Miss World crowned in a bikini, a crowning that was condemned by the Pope. Bikini was banned from beauty pageants around the world after the controversy. Catholic-majority countries like Belgium, Italy, Spain and Australia [sic?] also banned the swimsuit that same year.
Likewise, though the burkini was created by a female Australian designer, the religious rules about which parts of believing Muslim women's bodies can be left uncovered in public spaces were created by medieval Islamic male scholars and jurists, and it is those rules that the burkini is intended to satisfy (7). The choice to wear one is not unaffected by the extreme male dominance in how to interpret religious rules.
The intention of this post is to remind you, my dear and erudite readers, of something you probably don't need to be reminded about, given your erudition: The control of women's clothing and the choices women make about what to wear are rarely as simple to interpret as one might originally think.
This doesn't mean that I argue for the lack of all meaningful choice, of course; only that it's always salutary to peel back the layers of our opinions and to understand to what extent our choices are affected by the constraints we all face, though to varying degrees, given our specific places in social groupings and hierarchies.
(1) The most puritanical schools of Islam, such as the fairly powerful schools of Salafism and Wahhabism (exported all over the world with Saudi petro-dollars), are extremely unlikely to regard the burkini as fulfilling the requirements of female modesty. Note that the shape of the arms and lower legs is clearly delineated, and that's a no-no.
(2) This shouldn't be a guess, but in my research experience good statistical data is impossible to find on questions such as what percentage of Muslim women in, say, France wear the veil, what percentage of nominally Christian women in the US would actually buy modesty swimwear, how prevalent the face veil is in various countries of the world, and so on.
The lack of good survey data on these issues is astonishing. It is also very dangerous: It allows biased writing on the issues, the kind of writing which generalizes ISIS views to all Muslims or which quotes one imam's opinions as reflective of overall practice of hundreds of millions of people.
In the most bizarre of ways, this lack of general data can even allow progressive or feminist writers to mistake extremist Islamic interpretations of how women should behave as the types of rules (choice) feminists should widely support, as long as it's only the religion that forces these interpretations on women (so that we can argue that choosing to follow them is a woman's choice) and not governments (as in Iran and Saudi Arabia where women are not free to choose their dress). This approach commonly confuses religious freedom for women with women's rights arguments, without asking why religions require such very different things from men and women in the first place.
(3) Though a court in Corsica has upheld the ban there, arguing that it came in response to a breach of public order.
I should note here that my own view (not based on any knowledge of the relevant French laws) is that the bans are inappropriate and should be overturned, for too many reasons to list here.
(4) A whole book could be (and probably should be) written about the real meaning of various modesty arguments, when applied to women's bodies and behavior, because the concept contains multitudes of ideas, including some pretty nasty ones. As an example of the latter, it's possible to use "modesty" to keep women away from most public spaces, to keep women silent in politics and to keep women powerless inside families, because the concept itself depends on how it is defined and those definitions are cultural.
The concept of religious modesty swimwear of both the Christian and the Muslim type also inevitably raises the question: If this is what modest apparel looks like, is all other swimwear worn by all other women immodest?
Note, also that concepts of male modesty are very much ignored in the interpretation of general religious rules.
A book could (and should) also be written about all the different types of tasks women's traditional dress seems to have been lumbered with.
The most casual analysis tells us, for instance, that it is women's dress which is much more often differentiated between certain religious and/or ethnic groups in the West. While most Hindu and Muslim men in the US or Europe dress exactly like men in those places dress in general, many more Hindu and Muslim women wear clothes which tell the observer about their religion and/or ethnic roots. The exception to that general rule is the turban of the Sikh men.
(5) I have not researched the authenticity of these pictures or the events they seem to describe, because my objective is to talk about one feminist interpretation of the burkini ban in general, not these specific events. This site gives more pictures of the early 20th century bathers in the US and the control of women's swim suits.
(6) This refers to the following argument:
The bikini gradually grew to gain wide acceptance in Western society. According to French fashion historian Olivier Saillard, the bikini is perhaps the most popular type of female beachwear around the globe because of "the power of women, and not the power of fashion". As he explains, "The emancipation of swimwear has always been linked to the emancipation of women."(7) I don't have the scholarship to analyze various interpretations of how religious Muslim women and men should dress, based on Islam, though I am aware of many different interpretations, including the liberal ones which argue that the Quran doesn't even require Muslim women to cover their hair in order to be modest (and with which I tend to agree), and of many very restrictive ones, such as the one about only a woman's face, hands and feet to be left bare in public, or the one that states that women should cover everything but their eyes or perhaps just one eye.
Here's the weird thing: As far as I can tell, the area of the body that Muslim men must cover, according to religious rules, is just the area between the navel and the knees. Everything else, including the hair on their heads, can be left bare.
Obeying that male code looks like a scrumptious piece of cake, compared to almost all the female dress codes. I suspect that's no accident, because those medieval male scholars who created the rules weren't going to inconvenience themselves too much, and because, as I've written before, societies tend to sexualize women's bodies while not doing the same to men's bodies. The latter means that functionality, comfort and health get shorter shrift when it comes to how women are expected to dress. Arms or legs are not just arms or legs anymore, but have sexualized significance when attached to female bodies.
The gender differences in those rules also explain why Western Muslim women are much more likely to be visibly identifiable as Muslims in the West than Muslim men, and therefore much more likely to face horrible anti-Muslim bigotry, and why the burkini type cases are unlikely to crop up concerning Muslim men.