Clothing bans: Burqini blues

Clothing bans: Burqini blues September 7, 2009
Scary woman

“Uh, sir?”


“You can’t wear that in the pool.”

“My shirt?”

“Yes, you cannot wear that in the pool.”

This was the conversation I had with a worker at a public pool in the summer of 2006 in the Mediterranean Coast of… Egypt. The worker expressly forbid me from wearing a shirt into the pool. The other, practically naked, people were fine they way they were, but if I wanted to wear a shirt out of modesty, I was forbidden. In a Muslim country! In fact, back in 1993, my family and I were vacationing in Sharm El Sheikh when a German tourist smugly said to my sister, who was wearing hijab in the pool, “This is not a washing machine for your clothes!” Again, in a Muslim country!

So, I have an inkling of understanding of what various Muslim women in Europe are going through when they are banned from swimming in a pool with a so-called “Burqini,” or a long, loose-fitting wetsuit with a hood. Recently in France, a convert to Islam named Carole was banned from going to a public pool in Paris because the rules forbid swimming while clothed. She is contesting the rule in the French court system. In an Italian town, swim with a “Burqini” and you are fined 500 Euros ($700). Defending the stance, Piedmont mayor Gianluca Buonanno said, “The sight of a ‘masked woman’ could disturb small children, not to mention problems of hygiene”

“Hygiene” is frequently cited as justification for banning Muslim women from swimming in public pools with their clothes. As a physician, this is complete nonsense. Human skin is as un-hygienic as any piece of clothing. It is full of bacteria, some even potentially deadly pathogens. In fact, if a “Burqini” is washed and then worn right away, it should be pretty clean; much cleaner than human skin. Add to this the fact that, if there are open sores on the skin which may ooze bodily fluids such as blood, this may be an even bigger danger to the other swimmers in the pool. Clothing, at least, could cover up any sores that are open on the skin.

No, “hygiene” is a poor excuse for barring Muslim women from swimming in their “Burqinis.” More likely it is plain old bias against Islam. The mayor of Piedmont did not bother to hide his bias against Islam, talking about the sight of a “masked woman” frightening small children. He even added: “We don’t have to be tolerant all the time.” Yet, there should be no objection to someone who wants to swim with a little more clothing than a two-piece bikini or basically underwear that is called “swimwear.” Why aren’t those clothes “un-hygienic”? If everyone is free to be practically naked in a public pool, why aren’t Muslim women (or men, for that matter) free to be modest in a public pool? Many of the Olympic swimmers wear full length swimsuits that look very similar to the Burqini. What is the difference? There is none, except in the minds of those who do not like to see Islam or Muslims.

Then there is the argument, from some Muslim scholars, that this should not be an issue because Muslim women should not swim in a public pool in the first place. Why is this so? They may justify it by claiming, correctly so in part, that wet clothing is tight and sticky to the body and will reveal body parts and not be modest. Well, the exact same goes for men who wear swimwear. In fact, the Burqini is a brilliant idea, and something such as this to allow Muslim women to enjoy an occasional dip in the pool like their male husbands, brothers, fathers, uncles, etc. was long overdue. Islam is egalitarian, and rather than say “Women should not swim at all,” there should be a creative solution. The Burqini is one such solution. And by the way, men are also commanded by God to dress modestly, and this commandment extends to the swimming pool as well.

That is why, with her faults and shortcomings notwithstanding, the United States of America is truly an amazing place. Here, I have never been harassed for wearing a shirt into the swimming pool. Not once. Neither have my wife, sisters, aunts, cousins, or the like. Here, if you want to go to the pool fully clothed, there is no problem at all. If we are asked, we say it is for religious reasons, and it is always allowed, and in some cases, even respected. Unlike in Europe, religion in the Unites States still commands a modicum of respect and veneration. In fact, my family and I have been harassed much more in Egypt for wearing clothes into the swimming pool than in the United States. Yet, not all of Europe is biased against the Burqini. In Oslo, city authorities have allowed the swimsuit. “Some people say they need to cover up,” said Jan Zander, responsible for sports and recreation. “We think it is important that those who live in this city can bathe and use the pools.” He is exactly correct, and it is hoped that more cities in Europe follow Oslo’s lead.

One last point, Piedmont mayor Gianluca Buonanno told AFP, “Imagine a western woman bathing in a bikini in a Muslim country. The consequences could be decapitation, prison or deportation. We are merely prohibiting the use of the burqini.” That is patently false. There are some areas of Sharm El Sheikh and other resorts of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt where the tourists – mostly Europeans – are not only barely clothed but, in some instances, topless on the shores of the Red Sea. Nothing whatsoever is done to them by the Egyptians. I have witnessed this personally. In fact, the Egyptians tend to look at those wishing to swim fully clothed as strange, even if they are Muslims like they are. Those who ban the Burqini should simply say, “We don’t like Muslims swimming in our pools.” Any other justification simply doesn’t hold water.

(Photo: Giorgio Montersino)

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is called God, Faith, and a Pen.

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