“Burkini” Bans Shut Women out of Public Space

“Mr. Anderson, Mr. Anderson!” I called, trying to get his attention. Mr. Anderson was the church youth group leader. I was in middle school, and I was considering joining. I was from a large, conservative homeschool family, and at our hip, upbeat evangelical megachurch, that meant I didn’t fit in with the other children. I had attended Sunday School only sporadically, and youth group would be a different experience—it would bring me face-to-face with my church’s public school children and their world. I was nervous, but I wanted to give it a try.

But I was encountering a problem. I had a question for Mr. Anderson, but he was ignoring me. He wasn’t even acknowledging that I was there. Why? Because—being a young, hip, evangelical youth pastor—he required the children attending youth group to call him by his first name, Dan. I wasn’t allowed to do so. My more conservative parents considered it disrespectful to address an adult by their first name, and I couldn’t have brought myself to do so if I’d tried. Disheartened by my experience with Mr. Anderson’s inflexibility (he never did respond to my attempts to get his attention) I dropped out of youth group before I’d even really begun attending.

I sometimes wonder how different my life would have been if I’d attended that youth group. My parents were concerned that it was too “worldly” and “fun-oriented” and yet they were willing to let me at least give it a test-run, to see. If I’d attended, my college experience might have been very different, in a good way—it wouldn’t have been my first real exposure to children who weren’t homeschooled. I would have been able to related to public school (and private school) kids more easily, to fit in or at least not stick out so painfully. Yet that was not to be.

But what about burkinis? According to the New York Times:

Five [French] towns have banned [burkinis]. Three more are in the process of doing so. Prime Minister Manuel Valls supported the prohibitions on Wednesday, calling the garment part of “the enslavement of women.”

When I read this news, my mind went straight to Mr. Anderson. He, too, may have felt that he was taking a stand, but it didn’t matter. It was never just about my parents’ requirements. The norm of calling adults by their last names was so ingrained in me that I could not have brought myself to call him Dan even if I’d wanted to—and I didn’t. I probably could have called Mr. Anderson “Dan” without my parents knowing, but I didn’t want to, and I shouldn’t have had to. As a result, I found myself effectively shut out of a group that would have given me more exposure to the wider world than I received in my insular homeschool community.

What I’m trying to get at is this—banning burkinis won’t change what burkini-inclined women wear to the beach, it will just prevent them from going to the beach. It will shut them out of a public space they could otherwise have access to and deprive them of opportunities they might otherwise have had. And for what? To make the local government feel like they’ve struck a blow against repression and “the enslavement of women”? They haven’t. Regardless of what one thinks about the hijab and other forms of Muslim dress, barring women from wearing burkinis to the beach won’t change what these women wear any more than Mr. Anderson barring students from calling him by his last name changed what I called him.

I have another point of comparison, actually. I never did swim team as a child, but some of my younger sisters did. It was a community league, in the summer, at a local pool. My sisters practiced and competed while wearing shorts on over their swimsuits. It slowed their time—that’s how physics works. And yes, my sisters wore those shorts because of the modesty standards ingrained in them by my parents and their homeschool community. But barring my sisters from swimming in shorts wouldn’t have stuck it to my parents and their body shaming. Instead, it would have prevented my sisters from participating—not so much because of my parents might have objected as because my sisters, given their upbringing, wouldn’t have been able to bring themselves to swim publicly without shorts.

That last sentence is actually a really important point. I consider both my parents’ body shaming and the dress code shaped by our conservative homeschool community’s norms highly problematic and, yes, bad for women. But by the time we were teens, for most of us, there was no need for external enforcement of these norms—I could no more have swum in a public pool without shorts over my swimsuit than I could have stripped off all my clothes in Times Square. I would have felt naked, vulnerable, and wrong without those shorts.

We can promote body positivity and work to break down the troubling ideas that undergird oppressive dress codes wherever they occur, but banning women from wearing specific clothing is not going to work—and more than that, it ought to go against our feminist ideals of self-determination. Feminists often speak up against high school and middle school dress codes, which bar girls from wearing certain types of clothing that are considered too revealing. How is barring women from wearing clothing that is considered too concealing a good idea in any universe? We should focus on removing dress requirements, not imposing them.

We can and should stand up against laws requiring women to wear concealing clothing, such as Iran’s requirement that women cover their hair in public. But passing laws barring women from wearing these same types of clothing effectively does the same thing—it polices women’s clothing choices and dictates what they can and cannot wear, controlling their access to the public square.

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