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Friday, September 2, 2016

Summertime debate: The Burkini

Nowhere has the debate this summer been more intense than in France. First of all let’s define a ‘burkini’. ‘A woman’s swimsuit that covers the entire body leaving only the hands, feet and face exposed’ according to the Oxford English dictionary. The origin is ‘early 21st century: blend of burka and bikini’. I must admit to being slightly surprised that women wearing this on some French beaches have been attracting more attention than women wearing, well, nothing. But I guess we are used to people at beach resorts and in the towns themselves wearing almost nothing. I am not bothered how they dress (or don’t) on the beach but I do find people wandering around town centres topless (men) or very scantily dressed, rather distasteful. Now it seems to cause even more trouble if women wear too many clothes.

Burkini worn by Nigella Lawson

Wetsuit worn by model

In France, which is a secular country where ostentatious religious symbols are banned in public places, there has been a severe reaction to the wearing of burkinis on a number of beaches. In Cannes and in Villeneuve-Loubet, the mayor has now banned them and in Corsica there has been a number of nasty brawls between locals and Muslims. Given the rising number of cases of sunburned skin and the associated cancer incidents, perhaps everyone should be obliged to wear a wetsuit or burkini equivalent while lying on the beach? Seriously though, are these Muslim women trying to make a statement or are the local youths attacking them trying to, or both? To what extent should we legislate on how people dress on the beach or elsewhere? In France and a few other countries, the full face-cover (Niqab or Burka) is already banned, but this is now moving to a new level. I expect the row will blow away after the summer as the beaches empty, but the issue will remain: to what extent is it acceptable to wear religious symbols and clothing in public? It would certainly make for a more homogeneous society if we all dressed similarly, or at least within certain boundaries. I don’t think anyone would object if a group of bathers dressed as Darth Vader or other such characters lay on the beach. Nor if a group were wearing wetsuits.

Bikini Atoll after which the Bikini was named

But we all really know that these incidents are about the ‘Islamification of Europe’, the growing numbers of Muslims and the changes they bring, particularly those communities who chose to continue with their traditions rather than adapting to European standards and integrating more into European (i.e. Judaeo-Christian) way of life. In Europe, women have fought hard for change and equality over the last 100 years and have largely achieved it. Seeing Muslim women cover themselves up in public looks to many like a big step backward. Except it isn’t. Because it is a very recent invention. There are cave drawings of Romans with bikinis and until a few hundred years ago, it was the norm to swim in the nude. Then for some reason, from around the 18th century onwards, people started to become more conscious of their bodies and started to cover up. And it has gone from one extreme to the other. In Bath in 1860, male bathers had to wear ‘drawers and waistcoats’ (that made me laugh) and females rather more. I remember visiting Queen Victoria’s holiday home, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight and seeing the carriage on the beach that took the fully clothed royal family out into the sea to bathe. And then in the 20th century it started to reverse again, culminating with the invention of the bikini by a Frenchman in 1946 and named after Bikini Atoll where nuclear tests were taking place and known for their explosive effect on the viewer! 

Victoria's 'bathing machine' at Osborne House
The Burkini is a modern invention, and it is frequently promoted by Islamic extremist groups who do not wish women to have a prominent role in society. If we accept this, do we have to accept the other things that these vile people are doing? I am finding it hard to justify a ban on the burkini although I do believe that it represents an attack on our liberal values. But should it be banned? Would that too, not be an attack on our liberal values? I have seen reports from a number of women who freely choose to wear a burkini as they are uncomfortable exposing themselves too much in public. How can a wetsuit be legal but a burkini illegal? But if burkinis are acceptable, does that mean it is acceptable that these women are not allowed to drive, not allowed to vote, and so on? Where do you draw the line?

However, I do believe unequivocally that face covering in public places should be banned, as it is totally socially unacceptable to speak to someone whose facial expressions you cannot see. It is a total rejection of our liberal values and society which we must fight hard to protect. It can also be a security risk.

This month's Quote is from Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese writer and poet, born in 1883, died 1931.

“Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.
And though you seek in garments the freedom of privacy you may find in them a harness and a chain.
Would that you could meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your rainment. 
For the breath of life is in the sunlight and the hand of life is in the wind. 
Some of you say 'It is the north wind who has woven the clothes we wear.'
And I say, 'Ay, it was the north wind, but shame was his loom, and the softening of the sinews was his thread.'
And when his work was done he laughed in the forest.
Forget not that modesty is for a shield against the eye of the unclean.
And when the unclean shall be no more, what were modesty but a fetter and a fouling of the mind?
And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” 

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