The Burkini Ban Is Only Skin Deep

This mosaic at the ancient Roman villa Romana del Casale (286–305 AD) in Sicily contains one of the earliest known illustrations of a bikini. PHOTO: Public domain

This mosaic at the ancient Roman villa Romana del Casale (286–305 AD) in Sicily contains one of the earliest known illustrations of a bikini. PHOTO: Public domain

In the midst all the fuss over France’s now overturned ban on the wearing of “overtly religious clothing”, once again we are focusing on the wrong aspect of the story: the effect, not the cause. And I believe the “cause” goes beyond religion or culture. Nuances aside, it’s something that’s common across countries and cultures that has been going on for centuries.

The ban was amplified by the now infamous viral images of a police officer forcing a woman on a beach in Nice, France to remove part of her burkini. So once again, this time at gun point, women are told how not to provoke rejection, reducing our social role to what we wear, or don't.

What if, instead of trying to impose dress codes on women, we tried to raise boys and men who respect women regardless of our shape, color or clothing? What if all the energy expended on enforcing bans, or on discussing whether a veil is an acceptable sign of piety, or whether women’s cleavage is provocative, was instead used to prevent and punish sexual harassment on the streets?

What if instead of judging women as “modest”, “respectable” or “slut” on the basis of their clothes, we started judging character on the basis of actions and ideas expressed? What if we stopped being outraged at seeing women breastfeeding in public? What if Facebook were to stop putting black boxes over our breasts? What if we objected, instead, to the routine objectification of women in advertisements and fashion magazines?


What if all of these state-sponsored efforts to show their “commitment” to women rights were put to good—and genuine—use in preventing domestic violence?

Maybe if the streets were safer for women to walk, they wouldn't feel the need—or be forced, in some cases—to cover up. Maybe if the streets were safer, women could make choices about their clothes by themselves and themselves alone, and no one would give a damn.

Maybe if there weren’t so much attention paid to symbols and items of clothing, we could start working on achieving genuine co-existence.

It's also sad and worrisome to see all sides using culture, tradition and, of course, religion as scapegoats, when the real issue has to do with the deeply ingrained desire of practically all societies to control women. The patriarchal notions of what is and isn’t acceptable are so embedded in our psyches that women get to the point where we actually believe—and even defend—the idea that we are truly exercising choice. But are we really?

Fortunately, I don't live in a country where I need to be worried a policeman will come after me and fine me either for looking insufficiently pious, or strip me down in the name of liberation. But I do still think twice about what I wear when using the public transportation, or walking in front of a construction site, because my chances of being harassed increase if I make certain kinds of choices. So I can empathize with the wish or intention to become somewhat invisible in order to avoid undesirable consequences. And although I am not Muslim—or religious at all—I fully support with my sisters in the veil.

This Facebook post by Demonio Blanco sums up the issue, calling it “purplewashing”:

Purplewashing es una expresión que refiere al uso del feminismo como excusa para actitudes intolerables, como la islamofobia.
Si te preocupa más que una deportista juegue con velo a que el resto lo hagan en bikinis minúsculos o a que los fotoperiodistas usen este tipo de encuadres, es muy posible que sea purplewashing.
Si odias el reguetón porque es machista pero no a Los Planetas, es posible que sea purplewashing.
Mujeres con velo, en bikini, que hacen punk o que perrean: somos todas hermanas y cada una se sacude el patriarcado como le da la gana.
Si realmente te preocupa mucho la opresión que sufrimos, echa un cable parando a tus colegas cuando nos tratan como a objetos en un bar o cuando hacen chistes de violaciones. No vale ver sólo la paja en el ojo ajeno.
— Vega Pérez-Chirinos Churruca.

Purplewashing is an expression that refers to the use of feminism as an excuse for intolerable attitudes like Islamophobia.
If you are more worried that a sportswoman plays with a veil than the rest playing in tiny bikinis, or that photo journalists use this type of frames [beach volleyball close up], it's very possible it's purplewashing.
If you hate reggeaton because it's male chauvinism, but not Los Planetas (Spanish indie band), it's most likely purplewashing.
Women in veils or in bikinis, who dance punk or twerking: we are all sisters and each of us shakes off patriarchy as each see fit.
If you are really worried about the oppresion we suffer, do something by stopping your colleagues when they treat us as objects in a bar or when they makes rape jokes.
It's not acceptable to only see the fault in the other.
Vega Pérez-Chirinos Churruca.

So, what would we wear if there were no religious rules, if we didn't have to worry about the uncomfortable gaze of other, about violence or stigmas? What choices would we make if we weren't raised to be so self-conscious about our bodies and their side-effects?

By focusing on the burkini ban, and not on the systematic violations of women’s rights underlying the story of a bathing suit, are we really doing something meaningful?


  • Leslie Piper

    Enjoyed seeing the illustration of women exercising in their ancient Roman workout gear.
    Evidently the Spartan women also exercised daily, bare, in the public gyms.They also could own property and enterprises.
    Of course because they were a warlike society, TOTAL warriors…the men, that is! BUT they didn’t
    oppress their women.

  • andré

    Part of the problem is we all (men as well as women) have to live in society (unless we are hermits) and thus are all subjected to some influence as to how we dress & behave.
    The points about tolerance of other’s intolerance is valid, as well as openness to other cultures. But that doesn’t mean we can run around naked (or fully hidden) without social consequences. Not saying that we should legislate against all socially disliked behavior (like the ridiculous berkini ban).

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