The burkini, a fusion of the burqa and the bikini swimsuit pioneered by Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, has recently been banned from several beaches in France, as an extension of the French government’s strict laïcité policy. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has claimed that the swimsuits are based on the ‘enslavement of women’.
The burkini ban has reignited public arguments and divisions in Europe over Muslim garments such as headscarves, in ways that ignore their affordances (protection from sexualisation and the sun, to name two). As a pale-skinned Australian woman, I cover up when at the beach to avoid sunburn. The thought of being forced to expose myself is downright terrifying. This is a draconian move that violates women’s dignity and the freedom to dress as they wish.
After a spate of violent attacks in France by self-declared Islamists, the burkini ban appears to be a re-enforcement of secular mores. Yet the ban is a reactionary, wrongheaded idea, deepening existing marginalisation of Muslim minorities in the country. The ensuing sense of exclusion and isolation only increases the vulnerability of some Muslims at the margins to the radicalising forces of violent extremist groups.
We have had our share of debates about burqas in Australia but thankfully no outlawing of garments. (Though perhaps banning the then PM Tony Abbott’s budgie smugglers wouldn’t have been a bad idea). Most of the debates about Muslim women’s modes of dress have rested on their ability to conform to narrow ideas of what being Australian looks like or means. Such debates merely lead to the dead ends of assimilation and exclusion. In light of that, it is worth reflecting on the history of the burkini and its importance as a cultural signifier.
The burkini is an Australian success story. Cleverly designed in 2003 by Sydney-based Aheda Zanetti, the burkini accommodates the modesty requirements of Muslim women bathers so that they can comfortably engage in the quintessentially Australian activity of beach-going that is often associated with skimpy clothing and suntanned skin. Indeed, as Zanetti remarked in a recent interview, the burkini has empowered Muslim-Australian women to be more active, giving many the confidence to join in local littoral life.
This is evident in the BBC/SBS co-production Race for the Beach (2007), directed by Alan D’Arcy Erson, which tells the tale of a group of young Muslim Australian women who are training to become surf lifesavers in Sydney. Made to contest negative perceptions of Islam perpetuated in Australian media in the wake of the 2005 Cronulla riots, the film presents convivial images of Muslims on the beach. Another film, No Migrants, No Me, made as part of the Africa to Australia series of short documentaries directed by Paola Morabito (2010), also showcases the benefits of the burkini by focusing on the experiences of two young Somali-Australian women, Lucky and Ramla.
Lucky and Ramla became interested in training to become surf lifesavers after a series of drownings at their local beach involving newly arrived migrants and refugees who had not learnt to swim. The two young women grew up near the coast but stopped going to the beach when they became teenagers in order to preserve their modesty. Donning the burkini enabled the them to become surf lifesavers, and to participate in mainstream Australian cultural activities while adhering to their faith.
The Africa to Australia documentaries present images of Muslim women that are a healthy antidote to the aggressive implementations of putative secularism in France, and to ‘bikini versus burqa’ ‘clash of civilisations’ scenarios in which it is difficult for Muslim women to engage in beach life without compromising their faith. Wearing a burkini overturns this narrative of incompatibility, blending different cultural perspectives and allowing for vital movement between them. Instead of forcing women to assimilate and negate parts of their cultural and religious identity, the burkini peacefully accommodates Muslim and non-Muslim women alike. This is far cry from the violence witnessed on the beaches of Cronulla and Nice.
We should celebrate and champion a woman’s right to wear the burkini. Akin to accessories such as the ‘home-made footy hijab’, burkinis are the fruit of a sophisticated combination of cultural influences. Indeed, these swimsuits are a dynamic expression of the material realities of living, imagining, belonging and dignity for women in the twenty-first century.
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