Burkini ban: Swimming in prejudice


Burkini ban: Swimming in prejudice

It all started with an anim

The burkini ban in France has assigned one more “Muslim problem” to bigots across the world. Every non-Islamic country currently has some kind of Muslim problem—terrorism-related, Islamophobia-related, patriarchy-related, gender-related or simply hijab-niqab-burqa-burkini related. US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is teaching America and like-minded vulgarians around the world how to hate Mexicans, Muslims and immigrants. The French right-wing politicians have given us reason to stare—physically and metaphorically—at women in head-to-toe wetsuits with wariness and condescending liberal outrage.

Around 30 coastal towns imposed the ban. Last week, France’s council of state, the highest administrative court, ruled against it. Reports have quoted some city mayors as saying they will not lift it.

The court ruled that the ban, which forbade women from wearing the full-body swimsuit on beaches, “seriously, and clearly illegally, breached the fundamental freedoms to come and go, the freedom of beliefs and individual freedom”. But as American writer Robin Wright says in a thoughtful piece in The New Yorker, “The court rulings won’t change the xenophobic public opinion that produced the bans in the first place.”

To the progressive, the secular elite and the socially argumentative, wherever they live in the world, the burkini ban is unsettling. To feminists in India, battling the patriarchal resistance to the entry of women to the Sabarimala temple and dissecting the just granted rights to Muslim women to enter the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai, it’s disconcerting. For a majority, Muslim or not, in France or India, our gender remains religiously, psychologically, socially endangered.

In the bigger world, xenophobia drums up its deafening screams, emboldened by terror strikes in Europe, the most recent in Nice, France. Closer home, we are haunted by the Kashmir issue—inflamed by Pakistan, split by religious and communal disagreement.

If the screams tire momentarily, poisonous whispers seep into our mental crevices, susceptible to unreason. An inner conflict takes over: Islam is about interrupted female identities, it veils and wounds women’s personal and social expression, it is about terrorism, triple talaq, polygamy, jihad…. We use this combative mash-up, often skewed and misinformed, to try and understand every blunt wound, every bleeding nerve as well as every war, crime and punishment in what journalist Scott Anderson calls “Fractured Lands: How The Arab World Came Apart”. This is the headline of a recent brilliant cover story in The New York Times magazine.

As victims and perpetuators of flawed reasoning, we brutishly toss the point in our “feminist” minds. I do at least. Even if progressive Muslim women want to stay veiled as a symbol of their freedom or swim in burkinis, whatever their religious indoctrination, it is all mired in Islam, so it must be fundamentally about clipping freedom.

But flip to the other side of this labyrinthine complexity. France, after all, is part of “Western democracy”. So if the burkini is about “provocation, impurity, non-secularism and counter-society”, some of the words French Prime Minister Manuel Valls used to describe it, what about other outrageous outfits in the past that also fitted these volatile descriptors? Lady Gaga’s dress of raw beef, which the music artiste and actor wore to the MTV Video Music Awards in 2010, would definitely qualify as one. She didn’t wear it to the French Riviera, but her clothing choice did not offend, erode or bother Laïcité, the form of secularism integral to France since the 18th century revolution. She was never “banned” from performing at the Louvre or from ever walking the red carpet in Paris.

If it is about clothes “based notably on the enslavement of women” (also Valls’ words), there was a 2011 Calvin Klein advertisement that showed a woman in a cage being assaulted by three men. France is a big market for Calvin Klein creations, but nobody protested against this campaign. This particular ad was withdrawn because of protests by an Australian advertising watchdog.

France famously “allows” provocative and politically complex fashion. Last year, a health reform Bill that was nicknamed the “skinny model ban” called for models wanting to work in France to submit a doctor’s certificate attesting to their overall health and a body mass index above 18. What is this if not dissent against enslaving ideas of female sexuality? Notably, John Galliano’s runway show in 2004 for his men’s Fall/Winter collection featured models in ripped clothing, some of them in camouflage print, with make-up resembling blood or war paint, imitating a scene from the Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo prisons, as some observed. That kind of imagery, beamed out to the world, would have haunted not just the families of war victims, but also soldiers, doctors, journalists and photographers who saw the Iraq war up close. It would have pushed them back into “West versus Islam” traps. But nobody on French soil “banned” Galliano from provoking the psyche of his diverse global audience.

That’s the thing about clothing, and definitely about fashion, which the French wear so proudly as a part of their social skein. Fashion must push and protest, question and critique, offend and provoke, try and fail, race ahead. Clothing offers solutions; fashion gives wing to the imagination. That’s exactly what the burkini, created by Aheda Zanetti, did. Barely so.

In fact, conservative Indian women who are “not permitted” to wear bikinis or swimsuits but still wade into the sea while holidaying in Goa or Cannes could also do with the burkini. Six yards of unstitched fabric buffered by a petticoat can have “hygiene” issues, if we must pull out another thread from the French PM’s argument. Or should these women get Shivan & Narresh bikini saris made from neoprene to cover their “freedom” and please the French pundits?

The more the burkini ban is debated, the more—let’s hope—it will inspire admiration for, and curiosity about, the views of hijabi bloggers, who have been infusing air, energy and thought into such questions. These women make the hijab funky and fun, as well as a symbol rather than sexual repression. Xenophobic bans may not be able to butcher this evolution. H&M’s 2015 campaign with Muslim model Mariah Idrissi and Dolce & Gabbana’s black and white hijab collection will find place in this decade’s history of fashion milestones.

Let’s bring the debate closer to our own skins. I have no conclusive thoughts on my “Muslim problem”. I am a Sindhi; my parents fled their homeland during Partition. My maternal and paternal grandmothers told me stories about “Muslims” who had been their closest friends and had turned into murderers and rapists. My paternal grandmother, a fire-spewing woman raised in conservative Balochistan, who was on one of those fateful trains from Pakistan, threw aside her ghunghat (veil) to take charge of the situation when her husband lost his nerve against his Muslim brethren. “I will never forgive them,” she would say, her skin flushed, eyes flashing. The scars of Partition textured the literary work of my writer parents. The “other” got subconsciously imprinted in me.

Many years later, on a teaching assignment at Medill School of Journalism, in Northwestern University in the US, a New York-based journalist who was visiting as guest faculty remarked that I reminded him of Benazir Bhutto, whom he had tracked for many years as a writer. I was taken aback. Bhutto, also a Sindhi, belonged to Larkana, where my mother hailed from. This writer had no clue I was a Sindhi; he just knew me as an Indian journalist. My appearance or genetically imbibed mannerisms were giving away parts of identity that I wasn’t even familiar with. I didn’t take this comparison with Bhutto well. My real problem was that I didn’t want to look like a “Muslim”.

Am I ashamed of myself? A little, yes. But I am beginning to sift through the damning noise of communal prejudice to follow what French-Tunisian historian Leyla Dakhli was quoted as saying in an Associated Press article: “It’s not a question of whether the veil signifies enslavement or independence. There are as many answers…as there are women in the world.” I have stopped judging burqa-clad women even though I cringed when I saw a six-year-old girl in a hijab at Delhi’s Apollo hospital last week.

Let’s also worry about a new backlash. Mine is the changing view on Paris, the capital of blazing, beautiful, meaningful fashion. Can it continue to be so despite wanting to lock away a segment of its female population for wearing what they want? Unless tide-turning designers such as Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier or Hedi Slimane bash this attempt at a burkini ban through creative fashion protests, French fashion may not be able to espouse the unorthodoxy and sensitivity that it has in the past.

Liberation is a slow, painful, acidic process. You can take off a burkini and continue to wear a mask. Or take off the mask but remain clothed in fear. Nudity is a state of the body, but nakedness is a state of mind. We need to figure out for ourselves as women whether we want to bare ourselves or be shrouded. In a burkini or a thong.