Burkinis: Are Women Being Forced Into “Modesty”?

Awesome beach parties, trendy bikinis, and unlimited fun in the sun. Summer. All around the world, the masses anticipate summer arrival, prepared to shed the winter layers and bask in the glory of the sun. Bikinis are consequently an essential summer garment in the arsenals of many women. The freedom they provide allow women to work on their tans or feel the ocean's salty kiss on their skin with a summer breeze.

Origin of the Burkini

Burkinis appeared on the beach fashion scene as a cultural necessity for many Muslim women. Some interpretations of Islam it's taboo for a woman to bear the amount of skin left exposed by most swimwear, with some cultures banning women from being in public unless garbed in a garment that covers everything but their eyes: the burqa. With such widespread social taboos, a lot of women, even some in the West, could never know the pleasure of a beautiful stretch of beach.

But times have changed. Thanks to Aheda Zanetti, many Muslim women have seized an opportunity to join their non-Muslim sisters in fun out on the sand in the form of the burkini. Purportedly, burkinis are not only comfortable to wear in the water, but also provide the essential sense of modesty practiced by these women, who might go about their lives ashore wrapped in a traditional hijab.
It all began when Aheda saw her niece’s tribulations; a girl that struggled to join her local netball team because her hijab violated the game’s dress code. In 2004, her niece’s plight, and the plights of many women and girls across the globe, inspired Aheda to design the revolutionary Burkini, that they might enjoy the fun and sports taken for granted by others.

What is it Exactly?

The burkini is a hybrid of women’s swimwear and hijab, like the burqa, as the name suggests. The initial design by Aheda is based on two pieces: straight-legged pants and a tunic with full sleeves and a hood. The neck and the head are covered with the hood or a swimmer’s cap that is attached to the neckline. It covers the entire body, except the face, hands, and feet. For many, it’s a godsend, allowing them to participate in things they could only watch from the sidelines in the past. And to them, any extra hassle of taking a dip clothed from head to toe is definitely worth it. But is it?

Burkinis: The Controversy

Burkinis sparked controversy in France in 2011 when Mayor David Lisnard of Cannes, a beautiful beachfront city on the Mediterranean, banned them. After Mayor Lisnard fired off the first volley, dozens of French mayors followed suit. However, like most issues, there are mixed feelings on the matter. On one hand are those that say that this modesty is forced. Worse; they say millions of Muslim women and girls are brainwashed into accepting their lower rung on the ladder than the men and boys. That they simply don’t know any different, and that Muslim modesty is just gender oppression. But there are others still that believe that every woman should be able to self-determinate, and that dictating how a woman practices her religion is nothing short of the sort of oppression the other side claims to find abhorrent.

Who Are We to Judge?

To each her own, perhaps? No decent human being wants to dictate how others should live their lives, so long as they live them with kindness and respect. But no decent person wants to allow what might—just might—amount to oppression; self-inflicted or otherwise.

You can be forgiven for thinking the lines are blurry here. After all, according to Aheda, her burkini is not designed to restrict women. It offers them greater liberty, because they can participate in the activities that other women do without revealing their bodies and defying the moral tenets they hold as sacrosanct. And yet therein lies the rub. Why do these women hold their beliefs as sacrosanct? Why would they opt to have less freedom in how they leave their homes than their men do? To some, they’re choosing oppression only because they were educated since birth to accept it as normal.

I'm breaking the fourth wall here, but I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a cognitive dissonance for me here. If asked to give my opinion, I couldn't give it with zeal and absolute surety, as I could with a great many other things. As a freedom loving member of Western society, I believe women should have the freedom to dress however they please, just as any man does. And I understand the temptation of wanting to codify things so that that freedom can never be denied to anyone. But as a believer in religious freedom, I don’t feel at ease telling anyone how to worship. And isn’t that what we’re doing when we remove their right to choose?

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