By Aliyah Saleem
You know what they say: one woman’s bathing suit is another’s tool of Islamism that needs to be crushed before we see the full Islamisation of Europe.
I would love to have been a fly on the wall when French officials in Cannes or Nice sat together in their meetings, after sending serious emails to one another to discuss the banning of an ominously named swimsuit.
Women of Muslim heritage just don’t seem to get a break. If we aren’t fighting Islamic patriarchy to show our bodies, we are dealing with a state that wants to fine us when we do cover up. Whether it is Saudi or France, women of Muslim heritage face the dismissal of their rights as secondary to the feelings of offended onlookers. If you are offended by the burkini, then I will tell you what I told people who were offended by Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons: look somewhere else.
As we have seen time and time again, the way women dress must be controlled in case the fabric of society rips apart. The banning of the burkini is sexist and it targets women of colour. It is a counter-productive move that will breed resentment and fuel Islamists who propagate that secularism is incompatible with Islam.
Underlying the ban is the view that Muslim modesty garments are essentially a sign of political Islam. While it is true that where Islamism spreads, black veils follow, to see it through this black and white lens taints ordinary women who have nothing to do with political Islam.
France has a rich history of secularism — it defined the celebrated French revolution. Sadly, right-wing populist politicians are pandering to people already hostile to Muslims, by using classical French secular ideology as a justification for the ban.
In his new book, former president Nicola Sarzozy launched an attack on British multiculturalism writing, “We are not Anglo-Saxons who allow communities to live side by side while ignoring the other”. Rather than embracing a more modern, tolerant secularism, politicians are stripping Muslim women of their rights to make a statement about how seriously they are taking the threat of Islamism. Instead of focusing on the root causes of Islamist violence, women are being used as pawns in a narrative which takes the heat away from politicians and onto Muslim women.
Aheda Zanetti, the creator of the burkini, put women first and understood that hijab has often been a practical impediment to Muslim women’s participation in the pleasures that wider society enjoys. She explains:
“It was about integration and acceptance and being equal and about not being judged. It was difficult for us at the time, the Muslim community, they had a fear of stepping out. They had fear of going to public pools and beaches and so forth, and I wanted girls to have the confidence to continue a good life.”
For women who wear hijab, every part of the body except what they cover (i.e. face, hands and feet) is private. Hair, legs, knees, arms, elbows – all of it is private. Nobody knows the full extent of the pressures faced by women from Muslim communities more than Muslim or ex-Muslim women. For many, especially those pressured into it, the choice between wearing a burkini or not going to the beach is a no-brainer.
In the eighties and nineties women from my Pakistani Muslim community would wear baggy t-shirts and leggings at the beach even if they did not cover their hair. Muslim women aren’t going to suddenly start wearing bikinis en masse during family visits to the beach.
We don’t need explanations as to where the policing of our bodies by our fathers, brothers, mullahs or gossiping community members comes from. It is a reality which many of us are fighting and undermining every single day. The burkini is an obvious subversion of traditional Islamic dress codes. To an outsider it seems bulky and excessively modest but to a fundamentalist, you might as well be naked when you are wearing it.
Recently, French police reportedly ordered a woman, who had been quietly sunbathing on the Promenade des Anglais beach in Nice to take off a Muslim-style garment which protected her modesty.
The daughter of the woman, whose pictures have gone viral, wept as onlookers shouted, “Go home”, while her mother was being humiliated. To argue that this ban has everything to do with religion and nothing to do with xenophobia is a sign of indifference to the discrimination affecting minorities in France.
I reject the kind of ‘secularism’ which results in armed police standing over a woman demanding that she shows parts of her body which she sees as private and intimate. Women of Muslim heritage are fighting a long and difficult battle to unpick deeply ingrained patriarchy which has come from centuries of religion, colonialism and poverty.
It’s true, we are far behind Western feminists in the struggle for emancipation. I have no doubt that we will get there despite the obstacles in our way, whether they are put there by xenophobes or Islamic fundamentalists who would prefer it if we were out of sight and out of mind.
Aliyah Saleem is an ex-Muslim atheist, a secular education campaigner and a co-founder of Faith to Faithless. She attended religious boarding schools for six years in Britain and Pakistan before leaving Islam. View her blog here. Follow her on Twitter.