Burkinis: harbinger or red herring?

burkiniNever heard of a burkini? Well, as this Los Angeles Times article explains, a burkini is the logical combination of the two words it seems to be a combination of:

The water-resistant burkinis, outfits that cover everything except a woman’s face, hands and feet, are designed for Muslim women in search of “a little more modesty” so they can “have more freedom to play sports,” according to the manufacturer. But in France, women in burkinis risk more than a few curious stares.

Two weeks ago, a 35-year-old burkini-wearer was barred from a public pool in an eastern Paris suburb, according to the French daily Le Parisien, triggering the latest bout of soul searching over an issue that strikes a deep chord in a nation with a strong secular tradition.

The relatively short article by special correspondent Devorah Lauter, who also writes on French Jewish issues for JTA, does a commendable job of touching on such a multi-faceted story in such a small newshole. The burkini issue, Lauter explains, is only the latest in a string of negative responses to Muslims becoming more visible in a society traditionally uncomfortable with public proclamations of religious observance.

“This is the tip of the fundamentalist iceberg,” National Assembly member Andre Gerin said of the burkini issue, which he claims is part of a “larger national problem” of growing Islamic extremism in France. Wearing the garment in public is a “clear provocation” and “ridiculous,” while helping “undo years of progress toward equal rights for women.”

There’s not much discussion of why most in the Muslim world believe a “modest” woman needs to be clothed from head to ankle, but at this stage in history most newspaper readers have become familiar with the concept.

I can except at face value’s Lauter’s implication that France’s secular culture just can’t stomach the site of public religiosity. But what I don’t know is why and where this visceral reaction comes from. Also missing from this story is much detail about the nature of Muslim life in France.

The between-the-lines reading is that it’s not just the burka that is, as President Nicolas Sarkozy said, “not welcome” but apparently Muslims on the whole. Is this true? How does this compare with the way Orthodox Jews and Christians are treated in France? And what role does France’s socioeconomic strata — Muslims, often immigrants from North Africa, are much more likely be poor and, by extension, criminals — play in this?

Christians have Carrie Prejean, Jews get Bar Refaeli and Muslims have Shakira, seen here modeling for Muslim Swimwear

Print Friendly

  • Jerry

    I suppose that a non-Muslim women who thought it would be a great fashion statement to wear an Edwardian swimsuit would also be subject to this attitude? http://www.fashion-era.com/images/Edwds1890-1915/beauties.jpg Of course not, but shouldn’t such issues and stories about them reflect a historical perspective as well?

    And would a Christian woman who felt that swim suits were too revealing and wore one of those suits because she found them modest but fashionable be treated the same as a Muslim or assumed to be a Muslim? I think we all know the answer to that question.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It would be interesting to see some research and articles in the media on how popular more modest bathing suits might be among non-Moslem women. Sadly, our culture considers one of the greatest sins a young woman can commit these days is to have a sense of modesty (Wasn’t that Miley Cyrus doing a pole dance everywhere in the media recently??) . And we bring up our young men to regard women as so much meat whose reason for existence is to merely be the latest “hook-up.”
    And who are the leaders in this march to decadence and among the biggest ridiculers of those who want to halt,or at least slow down,this march???—-The mass media.

  • http://godonline.newsvine.com James Davis

    I’m hearing warning alarms at the association of French Muslims with North African immigrants, the poor and criminals. A generation ago, many Americans saw Italians and Puerto Ricans much the same way. Let’s start with religious viewpoints, and then — if appropriate — bring in socioeconomic facets.

  • str

    “And would a Christian woman who felt that swim suits were too revealing and wore one of those suits because she found them modest but fashionable be treated the same as a Muslim or assumed to be a Muslim?”

    Yes, she would!

    Doesn’t make it better though.

    Doesn’t Mr Gerin know that equal rights includes the word RIGHTS?

  • Chris

    A case could be made that the high SPF (50+) of the suit would make it desirable from a health standpoint. No severe sunburn in this suit! The claim that the suit was was unhygienic because it could be worn outside the pool seems pretty lame–don’t they allow women wearing swim shorts and swim tank tops in the pool? No swim caps? How about serious swimmers who wear full body suits that improve speed? What if she had sustained severe body burns and wore such a suit to cover the scars?
    I’m afraid this sounds like the problem with the swimmer’s religious beliefs as applied to dress.

  • A

    In reference to that end note, isn’t just the bathing suit named Shakira? I’m pretty sure the singer is Catholic.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I think you’re correct, A. That’s funny, though, because all the swimsuits were given female names.

  • Jerry

    because all the swimsuits were given female names.

    I have to ask how many clothing catalogs you read. It’s a common practice from what little I’ve seen.

  • Brad A. Greenberg


  • ann

    I am in London for a bit and just ran across this yesterday –
    The Londonist on Bukinis

    It seems even in a single-sex setting, they were being required of all guests by a London public pool during certain hours and that the policy has been dropped.

  • Dave

    I’m glad the French press is exposing this attitude on the part of the French governing class, and I wish they’d put editorial pressure on them as to whether they think these ridiculous bans will aid or retard the integration of Moslem women in French society.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    the big joke is that total body “speedo” swim suits are being worn to win races…and at least one version of the suit is almost identical to the “Burkini”…

  • Kristine

    Interesting story. My daughter’s going through the ‘uncomfortable about my body’ stage, and I think she’d be happy with this suit.

    The story does a good job of using the politicians’ own words to make them sound kind of ridiculous and hysterical. The part about rising fundamentalism if you let women wear this kind of thing is particularly disturbing – I would think that suppressing a woman’s right to wear this kind of suit would be much more likely to bring revolt. Allow women to wear the suit, get a little exercise, and get out of the kitchen (where a good fundamentalist woman would be while her husband/brother/father is out playing poolside, ogling the other women in their French bikinis.)

  • Pingback: Friday Links — August 21, 2009 « Muslimah Media Watch

  • Chip

    If reporters read each other’s work they might make fewer incorrect assumptions.

    Angelique Chrisafis reported in Ghe Guardian about French restrictions on men’s swimming costumes which have nothing to do with religion

    In French public pools, from the racing lanes of Paris to the open-air lidos and water parks of the south, anything bigger than Speedos is banned and you must hoist yourself into a posing pouch as a civic requirement. French changing rooms are littered with the broken dreams of prudish males abroad who thought they could sneak in a few lengths without showing their contours.

    Why the enforced parading of Frenchmen’s bulges? “Hygiene,” says Emmanuel Dormois, a head pool attendant in Paris’s 11th arrondissement. “Small, tight trunks can only be used for swimming. Bermudas or bigger swimming shorts can be worn elsewhere all day, so could bring in sand, dust or other matter, disturbing the water quality.”


    As Freud reminded his acolytes from time to time, “Sometimes a cigar is a cigar”

  • str

    Or maybe this cigar isn’t a cigar!

    I don’t see anyone announcing the imminent end of France because of men’s swimming pants.

  • http://aishahhils.com A’ishah Hils

    I have a difficult time accepting the public health argument France has made against full-cover swimsuits…in one article on the woman who was banned from the public pool for wearing one, I read that the facilities director stated that since it could be for all-day wear, it’s not safe, since it could collect sweat, food spills, etc. These arguments just don’t make sense. See, I wear one. It’s made of regular swimsuit fabric; I only wear it for swimming; I can shower in it; it is NOT made for all-day wear and I have yet to hear of a Muslim woman who would wear it for such. I also have yet to see any proof that such a swimsuit has ever caused a public health problem. Given other recent events in France…I have to agree with you, Brad. France could just wake up already and admit they want to institutionalize discrimination against Muslims. At least it would be an honest approach.

    I am also curious to see what the reaction would be to less covering modest swimsuits (such as the ones some Christian and Jewish women wear which only cover down to the knees or elbows). I have the distinct feeling that if their hair is showing France may not have an issue with it, LOL. (Although given the more recent GetReligion article on French people freaking out about younger women not wanting to get nekkid at the beach…I have to say…maybe it’s just something about the French government/media’s obsession with getting pissed at women who don’t wish to remove their clothing in general…it’s just that those of us who are Muslim bear the brunt of this more often, and outside the swimming pool.)

  • str

    No, no, France does not intend to discriminate against Muslims alone – it is religion as such which is the target. Only Muslims have the most peculiar dresses so it hits them hardest.

    “I am also curious to see what the reaction would be to less covering modest swimsuits (such as the ones some Christian and Jewish women wear which only cover down to the knees or elbows).”

    If if became know that this was a Christian or Jewish thing, you would have the lacist brigade up in arms as well.

    Lest we forget, it was Catholics that were massively discriminated and harrassed a century ago! Never heard of the French state trying to confiscate all mosques.