On Female Modesty, the Burkini and Its Ban in France
The burkini is a form of religious modesty swimwear, intended for those who believe that Islam requires women to bare no more skin in public (where men not your close kin can see you) than what appears on the face, the hands and the feet (1)
It looks like a wetsuit-tunic combination:
Modesty swimwear is also available for Christian women. An example of the types of outfits I've seen for sale can be found here.
That religious modesty swimwear is marketed to both Christian women and Muslim women doesn't mean that the two markets are equally large.
My guess (2) is that many more Muslim than Christian women are affected by the religious stipulations for women to be modest. The Christian female modesty clothing is aimed at the fundamentalist market, whereas the Muslim female modesty clothing is aimed at a much wider market of women.
But what the two types of modesty swimwear share, of course, is that religious concepts of modesty are thousand times more often about women's dress, women's bodies and women's behavior than about men's dress, bodies or behavior.
That's something thoughtful people should keep in mind when reading about the recent events in the south of France: The ban of the burkini on the beaches of some thirty seaside towns and cities, including Nice, where 80+ people died in a terrorist attack on Bastille day this July.
The Nice ban has been overturned by a court, and so have the bans in some other cities (3). The court's argument concerning the Nice ban is worth quoting, because it also tells us about the motives behind the ban: The argument that the wear of the burkini poses a risk to public order:
A court in Nice suspended the city's burkini ban, citing insufficient grounds to justify the controversial decree.
In the ruling Thursday, judges from Nice's administrative tribunal court said the full-length swimsuit worn by some Muslim women did not pose a risk to public order on the French Riviera city's beaches.
The case was brought by the Collective Against Islamophobia -- a group of human rights activists who have been helping a number of women challenge fines. They argued that the ban is discriminatory, unconstitutional and that there has been no evidence to suggest that wearing a burkini has contributed to any acts of public disorder.
Over 30 towns -- largely situated along France's southeast coastline -- initially imposed a ban on the divisive swimwear.
The control of women's clothing has a long history everywhere, and the French burkini bans can be slotted into that history. At the same time, these bans are also the reverse of most of the past regulations about women's bodies in the public sphere: They amount to demands that women bare more skin, not less skin.
That's because the current case is not directly about controlling women's sexuality or about assigning them the complete duty of sexual gate-keeping, but about something different:
The fear of extremist religious terrorism, the belief (most likely to be false) that the burkini signals its wearer's allegiance to such terrorism, the definition of what it means to be French, what it means to be secular in the public sphere, and other similar questions.
While most regulations of women's swimwear have historically focused on enforcing female modesty and the duty of female sexual gate-keeping, this case is different: Modesty in the West has usually been employed as the counter-argument to individual women's demands to decide for themselves what to wear on the beach, but in the burkini ban modesty and those individual demands are on the same side, at least if we only look at the top layers of the case (4).
Feminists React To The Ban. Or The Man Behind The Curtain.
One particular feminist take of the burkini ban is about the news that a woman on the beach had been made to strip some layers of her clothing by a policeman. This take is a good example of the general feminist arguments I read in the social media: