how the burkini democratised summer time

Examining how the year’s most discussed item of clothing gave Muslim women the beach.

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Sep 5 2016, 3:40am

Image via @ahiidaburqinihijoodswimwear

In Australia, the land of sun and surf, summer is celebrated with less clothing, day trips to the beach and cooling off with beers on lazy afternoons. That is unless you're part of the growing portion of the Australian population for which most of those things are prohibited. For many Muslim Australians, summer is less a time of jubilant celebration, and more one of sweating in layers of clothing while searching for an excuse to to skip pool hangs. In Islam, a woman's modesty is closely linked to the clothing she wears, and swimsuits are a source of much contention.

That was, until the burkini paved the way for Muslim women to enjoy the beach without having to compromise on their religion's requirements. Invented in Australia by designer Aheda Zanetti, the burkini is a two-piece swimsuit that covers a woman's head and body, whilst still allowing freedom of movement so wearers can swim and frolic to their heart's content. Much like the burqa, the burkini isn't just a length of cloth, it's a symbol of society's attitude to women's bodies.

Since its invention in the early 2000s, Muslim women in Australia and across the world have been able to visit the beach and pools, swim with their friends and families, and even join surf lifesaving clubs - all seminal "Australian" passtimes that would have been far less accessible without the garment. And in the decades since it was introduced, it's become a positive example of the way that fashion can transform lives.

In many ways the arrival of the burkini mirrors the origins of the female swimsuit, which was also pioneered by an Australian woman, champion swimmer Annette Kellerman. At the beginning of the 20th century, Kellerman challenged society's expectation that women must bathe in cumbersome swimming outfits that often involved pants and a skirt, and made it virtually impossible to swim. Two years after she introduced the modern swimsuit she was arrested in America for 'indecency' when she wore it.

The irony surrounding the history of female swimwear is not lost when we consider the recent attempt in France to ban the burkini for essentially not being revealing enough. Despite a court ruling stating that a ban of the burkini would be unlawful, French mayors have vowed to proceed with the ban regardless, citing security as the reason. Over a hundred years later the conversation around making summer accessible to all women is still fraught, as we continuing to police their bodies and lives by the beach. The only difference is that when examining global attitudes towards the burkini, it's clear the issue here is more than garden-variety sexism or even racism.

Many of the arguments used against the burka over the years, and that extend to the burkini, have been about combating the assumed sexism and misogyny that western countries see as inherent to the garment. The claim is that women are forced to cover their bodies in Islam, and that the policing of women's bodies is unacceptable in a western, secular society. We've apparently come a long way since Kellerman's day. But the assumption that Muslim women are oppressed by their veils, that their husbands or fathers force them to cover their faces against their will, is ignorant and denies Muslim women the agency and intelligence to practice their faith in the way that suits them.

The reality is the burkini couldn't be a less oppressive garment: it has transformed the way Muslim women enjoy the leisure activities that they were mostly barred from otherwise. It allows Muslim women to swim with their children in public, lie back on the sand and feel the sun on their bodies, and not have to compromise their faith in the process.

The furore around the burkini isn't only an example of policing women's bodies, but also how they find and express empowerment. Objectors are so focused on how much flesh is on display, they lose sight of what is being gained by the woman - namely their ability to make their own decisions. To tell a woman to take off a garment, is as oppressive as telling her to cover up.

But as the temperature rises in Australia, we are lucky that this summer Muslim women in burkinis will be a familiar sight on the beach. Rather than choosing to see that moment of happiness as a point of oppression, recognise that with the burkini, you're witnessing a new phase of equality on our shores.

@zoyajpatel

Credits


Text Zoya Patel
Image via @ahiidaburqinihijoodswimwear