Four years ago, one of my friends asked me to be her maid of honour at her destination wedding in the Dominican Republic. The first thing that went through my mind was how excited and honoured I was. The second thing was, “Crap, what am I going to wear?”
I wear the hijab, and along with it cover my arms and legs in public. I wasn’t just worried about my bridesmaid dress. (That had its own set of modifications, like finding a matching dress below knee-length, a bolero with long sleeves to go on top, and a scarf just the right shade of blue.) I was also worried about what I would wear at a beachside resort during a week that was likely to be filled with lots of fun water activities. Frankly, even if I wasn’t observant, I wouldn’t be very comfortable baring all my flabby bits in an itty-bitty bikini.
When I told a friend about the trip, she told me she had ordered a “burkini” online. The name is a play on the words burka and bikini, which is a bit of a deceiving label for what essentially looks like a diving suit that covers the arms and legs. I told her I thought most of the burkini designs were hideous, and that I would never be caught dead wearing one.
I ended up spending most of that trip wearing T-shirts and cycling tights over a bathing suit, and a swimming cap over my hair. At first, I felt a bit self-conscious being the only one fully covered, while everyone else was in bikinis, but after a while I realized no one really cared. So, I stopped worrying and concentrated on enjoying myself. We played beach volleyball, swam in the ocean, and took a day trip on a catamaran where we even got to touch starfish. It was an amazing trip and the most time I’d spent in the water in years.
These past few weeks I kept thinking about that trip as I read headlines about a number of French tourist towns banning the burkini. The more I read, the angrier I felt. The mayor of Cannes has said burkinis fail to “respect good morals and secularism” and are “manifesting religious affiliation in an ostentatious way.” I became absolutely enraged when I saw pictures of French police literally forcing a woman out of her clothing on a Nice beach while her children watched in horror, and issuing her a fine. She wasn’t even wearing a burkini — She was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, tights, and a scarf wrapped around her head.
I could only imagine how I would have felt on that trip to the Dominican, where I was there to celebrate my friend’s marriage and enjoy a week on the water, if a police officer approached me, threatened me with pepper spray, and told me to strip or get off the beach.
I may think burkinis are kind of ugly, but to me the idea that they are an affront to freedom is absolutely ridiculous. I believe the only thing burkinis reject is the notion that the beach is a place for bikini-clad bodies only. When I walked onto the beach in Punta Cana wearing what I felt comfortable in, I was saying to the world that only I decide what I do with my body.
There are so many reasons why woman may want to cover.
When I was in high school, I had Christian friends who didn’t wear bikinis at the pool. They always covered their bathing suits with T-shirts in an attempt to be more modest. A friend who doesn’t wear the hijab told me she bought a burkini-style swimsuit because she doesn’t feel comfortable baring her midriff after having kids. There are countless others with skin conditions or those who are sensitive to the sun — Will they be banned from France’s beaches?
The problem is, it seems to me, that this ban is in essence a ban on freedom and choice — the very thing France claims to be fighting for. They are criminalizing the acting of being clothed. Officials are effectively saying, “Here, we only value women by their sexuality. Undress or get out.”
Burkinis or bathing suits — No one should tell women what to wear. Forcing women out of their clothing makes French officials just as bad as the extremists who force women to cover up.
Maybe I’ll consider getting myself a burkini after all.