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.


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.

8 thoughts on “The deadly burqini: get thee out of the pool”

  1. I think the issue is a different one. This isn’t the same issue/debate as the Sarkozy/burqa problem. I find it to be a little different though it does raise similar questions.

  2. At bottom, the issue remains one of free choice and how to ensure that a choice is really free. A potentially very valuable commentary is building up on the blog now taking in the capabilities dimension from Amartya Sen. It would be great if you could contribute to the debate. This is the kind of feedback and mental stimulation that millions of students in South Asia need and don’t get.

  3. Shabana, you know the same thing happened to me? I was 8 months pregnant, it was Mother’s Day, my birthday, and all I wanted to was take a swim. I hadn’t swam in so long, and you know I have Caribbean blood running through my veins! I’m a mermaid for crying out loud! If I can’t get in the water, I can’t breathe!

    Anways, my husband took me to a hotel 5 min away from our house at the National Harbor in Maryland. The hotel manager questioned me, asking if I was wearing a jogging suit and not believing that my modestkini was a swimsuit. I mean, the Russian lifeguard didn’t care that I was in a modest swimsuit, and everyone could tell that I could swim. Actually, no one was even there…but he just decided to be a jerk and make me cry 5 min before I was about to leave the pool anyway. Hubby wrote a complaint letter (after a seriously intense conversation with the male manager who was accusing me of wearing a jogging suit), and the result was diversity training for the entire staff at that hotel and the other affiliated hotels, a refund on our stay, and a complimentary free next stay. Alhamdulillah, LOL, I can laugh about it now, but then it was pretty scary and it made me very sad. I was due to be a mommy soon and was just trying to take a dive into the ocean of life, just to have my dreams squashed on a double-holiday weekend. I mean, those pregnant exercise videos are horrendous! I don’t know how they could even stretch the way they were stretching! All I could do was walk and swim, if people would just let me….And I bought that darn modestkini for like $90 JUST TO GO SWIMMING IN THE FIRST PLACE! I was like, I’m not going to leave the water when I spent almost a hundred bucks to get in the water. Just goes to show you, people are ignorant. I wonder what would happen if I take up the complimentary stay now…

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