Twists and turns in burkini debate

Amid moves by French mayors to ban the burkini on their cities' beaches, Muslim women say the long, hooded swimming costume gives them a chance to enjoy the sea

PARIS • What is it about the headscarf? Or the "burkini", the head- to-ankle bathing suit that serves as a demure covering for female Muslims now lighting up the political sphere in France?

The moves by French mayors in coastal cities to ban the burkini on their beaches has put a new twist on a long-running debate in Europe and beyond about whether Muslim women should or should not cover their heads and, in rarer cases, their bodies.

In the mid-1990s, when the cornerstone of Turkish society was an aggressively secularist ideology, a ban on wearing headscarves in hospitals, courts, government offices and universities was a red flag for the Islamist Welfare Party, which campaigned vigorously to overturn it.

The ban inflamed passions across the country to the point that in July 1995, an Islamic extremist shot to death a provincial bar association official who had threatened to remove two female lawyers from the courtroom for covering their heads. The killer said he had meant to set an "example for those who would ban" the headscarf.

Attitudes towards the role of Islam in everyday life have since shifted in Turkey, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist party, Justice and Development, the heir to the Welfare Party, has moved to ease the headscarf ban - first in government offices and universities and then, in 2014, in middle and high schools.

A burkini-clad woman (left) on Oued Charrat beach, near Morocco's capital Rabat, earlier this month. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In Turkey, traditional Muslim women have long argued that wearing what they want on their heads is a fundamental human right.

Feminists and secularists counter that the headscarf is a symbol of women's subjection to men and of Mr Erdogan's project to restore the country's Islamic identity.

These same arguments are heard elsewhere.

In Morocco, private pools and beaches have banned the burkini for several years, mostly in the name of hygiene.

According to the magazine Jeune Afrique, women in burkinis - typically a knee-length hooded tunic covering a bodysuit - have been publicly criticised for celebrating their freedom by completely hiding their bodies.

In France, it began with a 2004 law banning "ostentatious" religious symbols in classrooms, which was aimed at the headscarf but also included the Jewish skullcap and large Christian crosses.

That was followed by another law, adopted in 2010, which banned full-face veils, most notably burqas, in the name of public security.

What is allowed are full-length head coverings that leave faces and hands exposed.

These were much in evidence recently on the Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, a street in central Paris that is a centre of Islamic bookshops, halal butchers and boutiques specialising in "Oriental fashion", also known as "modest fashion".

In a shop where multi-coloured Turkish-made burkinis are selling for €69 (S$105) and have found few buyers lately, two young saleswomen clad in black hijabs decried the ban as absurd and insulting.

Until these bathing costumes began to appear on the market, in 2004, the two women said they mostly avoided the beach except to dabble their toes in the water.

Now, one said, she is able to go jet-skiing.

The burkinis, the two women said, have given a new generation of observant Muslim women a chance to enjoy a day by the sea, unlike their mothers, who were confined to their kitchens.

Women wearing burkinis, they said, should be welcomed for their willingness to open up to the outside world, rather than be fined and sent home.

On another side of Paris, a middle- aged woman wearing a scarf on her head, a long skirt and long-sleeved sweater said she, too, hardly ever goes to the beach. When she does, she allows herself to wear a short-sleeved T-shirt.

Ms Marie-Joseph, who refused to give her last name, has chosen a dress code that corresponds to her status as a "consecrated virgin", a woman who has dedicated her life to God.

In her view, what she wears is her business and no one else's - a right she thinks should be enjoyed by all women everywhere.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2016, with the headline 'Twists and turns in burkini debate'. Subscribe