France just learned that telling women what they can or cannot wear never ends well.
When Aheda Zanetti designed the burkini more than a decade ago, she did it for one very simple reason.
“I created them to stop Muslim children from missing out on swimming lessons and sports activities,” the Australian-based designer told Politico. “There was nothing out there to suit their needs.”
For the uninitiated, a burkini — a portmanteau of “burqa” and “bikini” — is essentially a full-coverage wetsuit that some Muslim women choose to wear for personal or religious reasons.
The burkini was a huge success, as Zanetti explains, because “[it] did wonders for Muslim women and girls. It created confidence to get active.”
The swimsuit design has been in the news as it has come under attack in France.
Telling women what they can or cannot wear never ends well — and yet, that’s what some parts of France are trying to do.
In mid-August, a number of cities in France began implementing bans on burkini swimsuits on local beaches.
Those who proposed the ban on burkinis claim the garment is a threat to others. But they’re not. They’re literally just pieces of swimwear.
In Cannes, the ban says that “access to beaches and for swimming is banned to anyone who does not have (swim wear) which respects good customs and secularism.”
Cannes mayor David Lisnard, who introduced the local ban, said he did so to prohibit “beachwear ostentatiously showing a religious affiliation while France and places of religious significance are the target of terror attacks” as a means to avoid “trouble to public order.”
Others have championed the bans as a move meant to empower women, claiming that the burkinis are a symbol of oppression. They’re both wrong.
In the last week of August, a series of photos from a beach in Nice went viral, highlighting exactly what’s wrong with the ban.
The photos show four police in Nice approaching an unnamed woman wearing a burkini on the beach. The officers hovered over her, forced her to publicly disrobe, and then fined her for violating the ban.
When you contrast that image with some of the reasons being trotted out in defense of the ban (like this one from French ambassador to the U.S. Gérard Araud), it’s really hard to see the logic behind the ban.
Moving to read so many supporters of the submission to a patriarchal, regressive and mysoginistic clothing code. That’s what is at stake.
— Gérard Araud (@GerardAraud) August 24, 2016
Araud suggests that by banning the burkini, it’s somehow liberating women from “a patriarchal, regressive and misogynistic clothing code.” But if the ban is about respecting women, it’s not quite clear how forcing a woman to publicly strip under penalty of law is empowering.
It also doesn’t account for the fact that many women simply choose to wear the burkini the way other women might choose to wear a bikini or a one-piece suit based on what makes them feel comfortable.
Sometimes it seems like no matter what women do, no matter how they dress, there’s just no way to win.
In recent days, the hashtag #WearWhatYouWant has gotten a lot of traction on Twitter to promote the idea that women should be allowed to make their own decisions about how they dress. In so many cases — whether it’s dressing too modestly or too provocatively — women are derided for making these choices.
One French artist summed up the whole conundrum perfectly:
The good news is that the attempt to ban the burkini has failed — for now.
On Aug. 26, a French court suspended the ban in Villeneuve-Loubet (near Nice), ruling that these types of bans may only be implemented if there was a “proven risk” to the public. No such risk has been established.
While this doesn’t affect the other 14 bans in effect around the country, this precedent will likely result in those being overturned as well in the near future.
Amnesty International lauded the court’s decision, issuing a statement saying, “By overturning a discriminatory ban that is fueled by and is fueling prejudice and intolerance, today’s decision has drawn an important line in the sand.”
Zanetti has hope for the future — not only about the burkini, but the way society treats women.
“It doesn’t matter why they make these choices,” Zanetti added in her Politico interview. “The beach is there for everyone to enjoy. We are women. We should be able to wear whatever we want to and do whatever we want to do, whenever we want to do it.”
Long live the burkini.