Me and the Burkini Debate
As France debates the Islamic-style burkini, I’m delighted with my choice to wear modest swimwear.
Modest swimsuits are suddenly in the news. This summer, a number of French towns and municipalities have garnered headlines for banning “burkinis,” Islamic-style swimwear that covers Muslim women entirely, headscarf and all, with swimsuit material. On Friday, August 26, France’s high court stepped into the fray, outlawing the banning of burkinis; three mayors refused to erase their edicts against the garments.
In a country rocked by a series of horrific mass terror attacks, banning clothes that send a message of Islamist separateness is one way to counter extremism. Muslim headscarves (along with other religious items such as large crosses and yarmulkes) were banned from French schools in 2004. Islamic veils that cover women’s entire faces were banned from public places in France in 2010.
French advocates of these bans note that Islamic covering degrades women. Many French Muslims agree. Fadela Amara, a voice of moderate Muslims in France, says, "The veil is the visible symbol of the subjugation of women.” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls called “burkinis” part of a “political project” by Islamists to perpetuate female subjugation.
“It’s a complicated subject and both sides have compelling arguments,” Rabbi Moshe Sebag, the rabbi of the Grand Synagogue of Paris, has noted. The mayors who banned Islamist swimsuits “understood this is not about women’s liberty to dress modestly, but a statement as to who will rule here tomorrow…. They understand today there’s a religious war, a takeover of the secular establishment of the French republic."
Matters came to a head recently, on a beach in Nice, in the south of France, the site of a terror attack on July 14, 2016 that killed 84 revelers lining the seaside. Four police officers confronted a veiled, burkini-wearing woman and issued her a fine. Photos show her removing her long-sleeved blue top, revealing a more traditional Western swimsuit underneath.
While Nice city authorities deny anyone compelled the woman to remove her long-sleeve top, the footage sparked a debate about modest swimwear around the world. Was the woman more “subjugated” while wearing her full body wrap, or being forced to strip off, revealing her more Western-style suit?
When I watched footage of the encounter, I had recently come back from swimming with my children wearing a modest bathing suit that, while a far cry from a “burkini,” was designed with the sensibilities of Orthodox Jewish women in mind.
I didn’t always cover up so much at the beach. When I was a teen, I would spend time at the beach, sunning, swimming and boating. My friends and I competed to see who could tan the darkest, who looked best lounging in their bathing suits, and how much weight we could lose on crash diets. Spending our summer in bathing suits, every flaw and imperfection was on display. We were obsessed with our looks which was the real measure of our worth.
When I grew older and started experimenting with becoming more religious, it took me a long time to make the switch to modest swimwear. I started wearing less revealing clothing every day, but didn’t think that modest bathing suits would be convenient or comfortable at the beach or pool.
I vividly remember the day I decided to check out modest bathing suits. My kids were old enough for their first visit to a water park. I pulled on my old bathing suit, and suddenly it seemed all wrong. Instead of focusing on holding in my breath so I’d look slim or worrying about how I looked in a revealing number, I wanted to be focused on my kids. Suddenly, it seemed bizarre to go out in public wearing an outfit that was so skimpy that I’d never dream of wearing it in the street or the supermarket.
I pulled on an old t-shirt, and once I got to the pool, found I wasn’t the only one. Most of the moms were wearing shirts over their suits. Some even waded into the water after their toddlers fully dressed. It struck me as ridiculous that none of us seemed to have access to swimsuits that would allow us to both enjoy the water freely and not wear skimpy outfits in which we were clearly uncomfortable.
That afternoon, I called the New York sales office of an Israeli swimsuit company that specializes in modest swimsuits. “What’s your swimming regimen like?” the woman asked me over the phone. She described her own demanding workout schedule, explaining the pros and cons of various swimsuits in different conditions. I was taken aback. I’d been picturing speaking with a woman who talked only about modesty and religion, and instead I was talking with an athlete. I ordered a swimsuit t-shirt in turquoise and black, with a matching swim skirt.
The first time I wore my new swimsuit, I was nervous I’d get strange looks or comments. But nothing could be further from the truth. Over the years, I’ve worn modest dress-like swimsuits on beaches around the world, and fielded questions from women about where they too can buy more covered-up swimsuits.
Some French officials might call bikinis a symbol of freedom. In my experience, it’s wearing my modest more bathing suit that has made me feel more free: free to enjoy the sun and the sea, to move around and exercise, without feeling self-conscious or defined by my looks.