The deadly burqini: get thee out of the pool

My latest blog post at Religion Dispatches: “The deadly burqini.”

I bet people get tired of hearing about veils and clothing from me. but what am I to do? Yet again, the issue has arisen.

A swimming pool in the Paris suburb of Emerainville has refused entry to a young Muslim woman wearing a burqini. The woman came swimming in July, but when she returned in August, they were ready with a ban and an argument to buttress the ban. They claimed it was because her burqini was everyday clothing rather than swim attire.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/08/12/2654153.htm

The rules to public pools usually don’t permit everyday clothing in the pool. Presumably this is because of safety and hygiene issues, both of which are important ones, given the risk of drowning and of exposure to nasty germs in a public pool.

Is a burqini unsafe? There are no issues with floatation, since the fabric is the same as a regular swimsuit. It’s not an abayah that will get in the way of your limbs, or a dress that will fill up with water and drag you down. It’s simply a swimsuit that covers more of your body. Why is that even an issue of note? If scuba divers wear wetsuits, why is the burqini a problem?

Come to think of it – French authorities may want to question scuba divers as to their reasons for wearing full-body wetsuits. You never know who might be doing it simply to cover their Muslim body underneath.

In fact, one wonders how far Muslims have penetrated the Australian swimwear market … http://shop.mooloolabaus.com/index.php?cPath=11&osCsid=l8m02chcb2sfhua0qcnn7b87i2

As for hygiene, wouldn’t it be better to cover up more of the body so people could keep their germs to themselves and not bring others’ with them?

If a woman is willing to brave the gaze that is sure to turn upon her when she walks into the pool area in a burqini, why, let her swim, I say. It’s quite an exercise in character, and she will probably enjoy her laps a lot less than her observers.

I’ll confess that I’m one of the people who avoid stares. My lack of physical fitness is evidence of my fear.

I’m willing to bet that this is only one case of many that haven’t made it even close to the news. And many more are the women who encounter hostility, or ridicule, or intimidating stares, or outright questioning – everything short of prohibition to enter – and avoid the pool (I can cite one friend’s experience right here in Oklahoma). Women stay home and forget about getting their exercise. Was that what y’all wanted? Stay away from the good Christian-secular pools? The woman prevented from swimming may have an argument when she argues that this is simply segregation.

Strictly speaking, the liberators of Muslim women ought to jump up and down in joy if these oppressed women make it as far as a co-ed public pool. They’ll get some exercise; they’ll spend some time developing physical strength away from their dark-browed swarthy bad-tempered fathers and husbands. The endorphins and resulting euphoria might result in a sense of physical and emotional freedom. What could be better? Hell, they might make it as far as throwing off their yoke and joining the ranks of the liberated.

Swimming is probably the best form of cardiovascular exercise for almost everyone, including individuals with depression, obesity, arthritis, diabetes, and various age-related ailments. Unlike jogging, it does not cause strain to your joints. Water calms you. Swimming makes you happy. Come, now, don’t those poor backward Muslim women need some health and happiness?

I know I won’t find universal agreement on this point, but I find conventional swimsuits to be inherently eroticized attire. Ask any guy perusing a swimsuit edition. Of course you are free to consider me silly, irrational, Victorian, uptight, narrow-minded, or culturally alien. But this is how I feel. Phobias, feelings, hang-ups – however you want to define my opinions – are difficult to shake. And, with my hang-ups, I would like to go swimming but not in a one-piece from Wal-Mart. You are free to disagree with me, but I am also free to feel the way I do. There are people who feel free to go to work without deodorant, or underwear, or appropriate coiffure, with worse consequences than a burqini might have on others. I wish people would take up arms against those offences.

In my opinion, given how I perceive swimsuits, it’s extremely unfair and sexist to require women to dress in such attire. The choice to wear a burqini, or long swim shorts, or such swim attire should be equal rather than either banned or inferior among choices in a pluralistic society. The only conditions should be floatability, safety and hygiene. Aesthetic considerations for women’s swimsuits are anti-feminist and Muslim women shouldn’t be the only ones in this fight. In my personal experience, Muslim women are not the only people who would like some latitude, please, in their choices of swim, evening, work, and casual attire. Not all people like to share the shape or sight of their bodies with others, particularly strangers, and certainly in this age of freaks, psychopaths and weirdos. Many women would like the freedom to not shave their legs or to go bald. You may not like it, but you can’t pass laws or rules against bodies’ use of public spaces.

This is what Western democracy and pluralism is all about. There are choices you can make about who to be, and how. As long as those choices do not harm others around you, one choice should be equal to another. Your personal likes or dislikes are your business. Whether I keep my maiden name or change it, whether I wear pants or a skirt, whether I live with my parents or by myself, whether I ride a motorcycle or drive a car, whether I wear my hair gray or blonde, I should not have to suffer consequences that affect my health and liberty. There are a range of choices we may have in every area of life, and all of the choices that cause no social damage should be equally available to us.

Modesty is not the only reason to want to wear a different kind of swimsuit. A friend who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer recently went for a dip in a hotel pool in a – well, not so cosmopolitan area in the US. Her near-baldness attracted so many shocked and disgusted stares from people of various ages that it quite distracted her from her exercise. The psychological damage was not worth it. She longed for the days of the bathing cap – or for a burqini.

But keep the burqini out. The burqini is dangerous. It is a germ. It might spread. It is a visual sign of the disease – Islam – that right-wingers wish to eliminate from the bodypolitic. It symbolizes a form of minority religion that does not keep its head down, quietly fit in, and try to look nonchalant. It is a little too loud-mouthed in its visual message here we are and we’re gonna take a dip in your pools now! Yah! Whatcha gonna do about it, eh?

As the local expert on Islam, of course, the local mayor Alain Kelyor sagely reminded thousands of giddy Muslim women who have only been doing Islam for decades that the burqini was not “an Islamic swimsuit.” As he points out, “that type of suit does not exist in the Koran.” Of course it would be quibbling to ask whether bikinis were mentioned in the New Testament and if saris were explicitly required in the Bhagvad Gita. Or one might legitimately ask whether swimming was mentioned in the Qur’an: that way we could keep the Muslim men and women out of our pools.

The mayor concluded that “all this” – as in the hoopla, the humiliation, the restrictions upon Muslim women’s physical exercise and use of public space – “has nothing to do with Islam.” Indeed.

Long, boring hours of Lahore afternoons

Every now and again, I allow myself the luxury of switching the dial of nostalgia to ON. – I have started trying to keep it OFF most of the time. I heard a wise saw recently, something to the effect of “We do not possess the past, we do not possess the future, and all we have is this moment in the present” and something like “don’t waste this moment living in the moment you no longer possess.” So I try not to squander the moment I have by living in the past.

But when I do turn the dial, when I think back of being a young woman in Lahore, the scenes that most immediately drift into my mind’s eye are set in long, warm, lazy afternoons. If you think you know boredom, you haven’t, until you’ve spent an entire summer-full of afternoons in Pakistan, as a young woman in a conservative and rather unsociable family. You won’t be going out much; you won’t be hanging out with relatives and friends much; heck, nothing much will be happening anyway, because everything’s supposed to happen in your family and friends circles. So if you don’t come up with it, it’s not really happening.

So a long morning of reading a luridly illustrated newspaper over an endless breakfast ends. Noon rolls in. Stir yourself, shower – unless there’s no water. The Zuhr azaan is called. Zuhr azans, I means. The wahhabi azan, the Barelvi azan complete with durood shareef before, the Shia azan, and numerous others, starting a few seconds after each other with the effect of an orchestra. You take your jainamaz outside – yes, into the garden (not the yard, the garden, thank you), wrap yourself in a dupatta and pray some nafil before the prayer – because since you have all day, you start to find a home for devotions in each moment.

You’re not moving towards the next moment, constantly, not looking to a goal, a destination, you know today is just like yesterday and like many, many yesterdays before that, and today is going to be just as slow as May, June, and July were. Maybe the postman will bring you a letter from a friend; maybe the power outage won’t happen today and you’ll catch the one drama serial of the day; maybe a cousin will drop by. But otherwise, you’d better find a home in these moments. They will not bring you very much, but you have to stop and watch them, carefully, like an elderly person dwelling on every single detail of the day.

So you pray, and then you sit on the jainamaz, reciting prayers on your tasbeeh. This could go on for an hour, especially if the weather is mild. Tasbeeh-e-Fatimi, then a tasbeeh of Job’s Qur’anic supplication, and so on. And then you’d recite some Qur’an. You’d recite Surah al-Fathh, the recommended surah after Zuhr prayer, as you’ve been reciting it regularly everyday. Since there is so much time to do so, you can do supererogatory devotions regularly.

And then, you might just take a nap, because it’s warm and quiet, and nothing is happening. When we had the takht – the wooden outdoor bed – I’d nap outdoors. In winter, the sun warming you is the most wonderful thing, and a most sleep-inducing experience.

Outdoors, you say? Where on earth is all this happening? Is it safe? Is it private? What about the strangers outdoors?

Most of these memories are based in the interstices of the public and the private. Middle class gardens in Pakistan are walled, fully walled from the gaze, with tall gates to allow for cars to leave the garage. One of our homes had a garden  not so well-designed – the walls had little slits at a few paces, but mostly, our trees and shrubbery veiled us from the outside. Our very curious, elderly, short-sighted neighbor who had even less of a life than I did, sometimes made a habit of checking on us through those slits. One day when she was doing this, and called out in Punjabi “Well, see, now, we can check on you this way!” she realized that the person stretched out on patio furniture was not her friend, my mother, but my 20+ brother – a MAN, sans shirt, no less – and she turned tail and scurried off in embarrassment. This quite-illiterate lady was actually mother to a famous London-educated artist of Mughal miniatures, who lived in the little house next door.

Mostly, our shady walled garden kept both the aunties and the strangers out, though. But the world remained palpable even so. And the world was a busy one. Packs of dogs, donkeys, cows, herds of goats and sheep, all passed through the street of our middle-class neighborhood. Peddlers selling alu, matar, gajarain (potatoes, peas and carrots), nuts and dried fruit, bright sari material from India, baked corn on the cob, buyers of bottles, cans and paper products by the kilo, and, delightfully, sellers of candy floss, sticky candy twisted on little sticks, ice lollies, ice cream (it wasn’t until I was an adult that the noisy musical ice-cream sellers rolled around), all passed through our little street. Funeral processions. And in Ramzan, the waker-uppers with their noisy drums, making sure you woke up – THREE HOURS BEFORE the fast starts. The street on the other side of that wall was a busy world. You lived near it, but not in it.

And of course there was the mosque loudspeaker, always busy, especially during holy seasons – which was, well, year round. Budding artistes got a hold of the loudspeaker and sang long na’ats – poetry in praise of the Prophet – to the tune of Bollywood songs. They announced lost children, deaths, moon sightings – we didn’t have to check any old websites then. And in so doing, they often woke us from deep slumber, and inspired us with unholy thoughts.

The garden is the scene of many such memories. I lost myself – I could, then, lose myself – in the fragrance and creamy beauty of the champa flowers. To this day I love the underrated sweet-pea because my mother planted them in our garden and they blossomed forth with a frenzy, mixing their colors within a few weeks of blooming. My mother is a keen gardener. We enjoyed corn blackened on outdoor grills- home-grown corn that took over the entire backyard, squash, okra, tomatoes, they all found a place in our garden. And each garden, of course, must have a Raat ki Rani (Queen of the Night) with its magical, intoxicating tiny flowers that only bloomed at night.

I could sit for hours in the monsoon rains – which, of course, went on for hours. Somehow, the rains were fully capable of flooding our garden so the water stood knee-high. The temperature was so mild that we never thought we’d catch cold in that rain. By the time the monsoons arrived, you were so hot and weary, rain was a relief, even when it flooded your streets.

I miss those nights too. Standing on the balcony and telling Allah my secrets – for secrets there were plenty – and no virtual friends to share them with over email that isn’t REALLY telling (I first used email in my late 20’s when I had moved to the UK for an MPhil). I miss prayer in the middle of the night, stealing out of the family bedroom (the one air-conditioned room, because power was expensive and central cooling was a mere idea) to pray in privacy and total silence. – There were no consequences for losing sleep in the middle of the night, because what was happening during the day anyway?

When we were little, it was still okay to sleep on the roof – yes, the roof – the top storey, I guess – was a place you occupied, where you hung out, where you enjoyed the sun. I have not in years and years known again the mystery and pleasure of falling asleep under the stars, on charpoys, to the tune of noisy pedestal fans and scary jinn stories. And sometimes you’d suddenly wake up to fat droplets of rain and run with sheets and pillows to the stuffy indoors. Of course then the 1980s came along, with guns, and educated young men took to burglaries at gun-point. After the actress Anjuman was robbed in her posh Defence Colony house– she was sleeping on her roof – sleeping indoors, as well as air-conditioners, became more common for middle-class Pakistanis. We didn’t get one until the early 80s. We made do with “desert coolers” and pedestal fans – of course humid days left us half-insane.

When I hear experts talk knowingly of encouraging children to deal with boredom, I want to raise one of my most ironic eyebrows and tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about. Cable TV with its endless choices – I would have killed for PBS as a child, public libraries full of new books, public gyms and swimming pools, perfectly maintained playgrounds with their play structures fully intact, movies and hospitable movie theaters, all manner of video games, good heavens- Chuck-E-Cheese, screen on the green events, fabulous museums – heck, children’s museums, – there really is little space for even the most determined American parents to allow their children to be bored – truly bored.

I am a little sorrowful for my daughter, who is surrounded by toys and by a mother who is a little too willing to turn on the TV. She may never know the gleam and glitter of the gems that are minutes and hours of a long, boring, endless series of days and nights. Those deathly boring hours – when absolutely nothing “happened” – that was where I found real secrets to my own soul. That was where, scraping and searching for anything, anything at all, I found reasons for living.