Kathy Sheridan: A lot is going on underneath the burkini
French ban on Muslim garment may have been overturned but it touches on host of issues
Part of the problem with the burkini fiasco, is that the name itself is misleading. It sounds like a refashioned burqa but omits the burqa’s singular feature; the veil that covers the face, often with a narrow mesh screen across the eyes . I tried the regular blue one in Kabul while covering elections there and first tottered into a nasty street sewer then sideways into a donkey. How we laughed. (Though not for long; inhaling draughts of dusty acrylic makes laughing unpleasant).
The burkini by contrast, covers the head and body but leaves the face clear. Twenty years ago, a friend would have paid top dollar for such a garment for a child with an auto immune condition triggered by sunlight. And given the soaring rates of skin cancer, who doubts that the burkini is the healthy choice? Or a fine option for the masses of non-beachbody-ready women who just want to go for a ruddy swim without the palavar?
Five years ago, Nigella Lawson, the TV chef, went swimming in such a garment at Bondi beach. World media went into orbit. Was it about “privacy” for her body? Or – excitingly – a powerful political statement, coming only a week after France’s 2011 ban on women wearing the burqa and the niqab came into force?
On one side of the world, went the serious commentary, England’s finest rose was choosing to don Sharia-compliant clothing, while on the other, France – one of our foremost liberal democracies – was bringing the full force of the law against the few women who insisted on wearing their interpretation of Sharia-compliant clothing.
On this island, we know all about the power of flags and symbols and how they can be hijacked. The burkini/burqa/ niqab/hijab are mainly symbols of religious belief or of some culturally dictated style. At the height of the Catholic Church child-abuse scandals, many priests in clerical garb were disdained, cursed and spat at, possibly by some of the same people now incensed by the French treatment of the Muslim woman on the beach, a place just 15 miles from Nice where an Islamist crushed 85 people to death by truck a few weeks ago.
Symbols matter. And Muslim-born women, like all women, differ. Maniza Naqvi, a Pakistani writer working for the World Bank, argues angrily that the hijab, burka and burkini have become “the symbol of Islam and all that there is about Islam. A cloth has become Islam . . . Modesty and virtue have been reduced to the abundance or lack of abundance of a garment . . . and those responsible for doing so are Muslim women who wear it . . . who sit in judgment of other Muslim women who don’t”.
That implies of course, that all such wearers have a choice in the matter. Sarah Haider, a Pakistani-born writer and founder of Ex- Muslims of America, takes the pragmatic view that far from liberating Muslim women, a burkini ban could harm the most powerless of them, removing what limited freedom they have.
The question is, who or what lies behind this? Who traditionally has held the power to decide what constitutes modesty, virtue or religiosity? And who has dictated how those qualities and messages should be symbolised to the rest of the world ?
PS: Some years after the burkini-wearing incident, “friends” of Nigella let it be known that it was all about keeping her skin alabaster pale because that was how her then husband liked his women.