Burka on the beach: whose choice is it anyway?
So a couple of weeks ago I read an article by Allison Pearson for The Telegraph about a new item of clothing being sold by our beloved British retailer Marks and Spencer: the burkini. For those of you who are not familiar with the term, it is a name coined for a piece of clothing worn by some Muslim women while swimming. Described as ‘modest wear,’ it covers up the whole body except the hands, face and feet. Basically, a burka for swimming in. Whilst the article took the liberty of mercilessly bashing the burkini by wrongly focusing on the apparent lack of integration by Muslim women into British society, there was a point that slightly ruffled me. You see, I’m totally in favour of women wearing whatever they wish as long as they are comfortable in it, physically and emotionally. That is our right. And that includes showing or covering as much or as little as we like. If it’s okay to walk around in tiny shorts and a crop top, then it’s also okay to do the same in a burka. The freedom lies with the wearer. Or at least it should. And I guess that is what compelled me to put pen to paper, or fingers to keys rather. The underlying reason why most women who would wear a burkini is not merely because they choose to, but rather they are made to. Expected to. Forced to. If not physically, at least emotionally. By whom? Their menfolk of course. And this is where my problem with such an article of clothing begins.
You have seen how hijab can be forced in everyday life, so going for a swim comes with extra baggage, which many Muslim women are expected to literally wear. Putting the whole ‘modesty’ argument aside, the much simpler matter of practicality requires some attention. Why can a woman not go for a swim, or lounge around on the beach without covering herself from head-to-toe? For goodness’ sake, are some men really so weak that upon seeing a woman on a public beach wearing a little less, they would not be able to control themselves and would end up harassing or molesting the woman? I find it pathetic and repulsive that women are made to feel this way; that they cannot even enjoy a few hours at the beach without being judged for not covering up. Covering up their own bodies, for fear of what men might do.
Last year I went to Dubai for a short break. I was people-watching on the open beach and saw many people come and go. There were Europeans in bikinis, Americans and some Indians too. Then there were handfuls of Pakistanis and Arabs who came in traditional dress. Mostly, the men stripped off to swimming shorts and splashed into the cooling sea. The women, still fully dressed, just wet their feet. Some went in further, wearing what they had arrived in; salwar kameez, abaya, hijab and niqab, making a floating mess whilst receiving stern gestures, as the water so brazenly made their garments cling to their bodies. Closely monitored by accompanying men, it was evident that the reason these women were covering up was down to the expectation of having to do so. As I absorbed the Emirati sun on my back, I could see that some Westerners on the beach were rather surprised and taken aback by the sight of these women bathing in the sea, totally covered in black cloaks, just a slot for them to peer out of. For many of these holiday makers it was probably the first time they’d witnessed this first hand. The puzzled looks, and attempts to avoid staring. But for the guy from Doncaster, he may as well have been witnessing an extra terrestrial landing. It was easy to read their thoughts: “Why on earth would someone wear that to swim in?” The impracticality of such attire screamed out to them. And that’s exactly my point. Having to be fully covered even while swimming is down to an attitude designed to control and manipulate Muslim women, and to ensure that they are always self-conscious. To ensure that they somehow feel inferior, that they can never be independent, and that if even a sliver of their flesh is seen, then they are committing a grave sin and that it is their own fault if men commit crimes against them because of it. All this to deal with, just for wanting to swim in the sea.
In her article, Pearson mentions that if M&S wish to sell the burkini, they can do so in Dubai and Libya, but not sunny Britain. She makes the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ That somehow only the Western woman’s struggle with the afore mentioned is important. That Muslim women of UAE and Libya can simply suck it up. Let them carry on dealing with having to cover themselves. Not us, we are liberated. Why? Why should the privileged women of the West be able to stand for their freedom but in the same breath be happy to brush off such control and misogyny where it affects those still struggling to fight it? It is grossly unfair to suggest that the burkini is not for ‘us’ as it violates our core values and rights, but it’s okay for ‘them’, the women of Dubai and Libya. They have rights too. If something violates our values and rights as British women, then it is equally in violation of the rights of Muslim women in the Middle East too. In an age when the world has become a smaller place, we should be doing more to help those who do not have the same liberties as us. To speak up for the rights of all women. To call out the burkini globally, for playing to the misogynist agenda of stuffy men who in the 21st century still wish to suppress women. To share the fruits of our struggle, with those who might just be embarking upon their own struggle. To reach out to them, giving them a platform to make their voice heard, so that future generations of women shouldn’t have to cover themselves head-to-toe just to go to the beach.