Letter to a Burkini wearer

burkini

Dear Burkini Wearer,

I feel that wearing Burkinis (and indeed Burkas) doesn’t make good dress sense at this point in history. I particularly dislike the Burkini fad because I believe that this fad helps symbolize an outdated and implicitly offensive view of normative human relations between the two genders. As civilized human beings, we have an obligation to inoffensively conduct ourselves in public places, if we can help it. Please allow me to explain myself.

I readily concede two possible handicaps, which may impair my judgment on this matter. I’m not a woman, and I’m not a Muslim. I’d be grateful to stand corrected, through rational discussion.

I believe that anyone has a human right to wear a Burkini. Any attempt to introduce a law banning Burkinis would violate so many fundamental human rights during the process of enforcing it, that such a ban would result in a moral travesty. Forcibly stripping the garment (and the dignity) of a woman is simply unthinkable to me.

Sadly, something of this sort happened in Nice last month. I am very disappointed with those French authorities that were responsible for this physical violence against Burkini wearers. I recoil from the notion that Muslim women must be “taught a lesson” physically, for revealing their religious identity through their clothing. If anyone wants to wage a “war” against what they feel is a highly offensive dress sense, then the proper thing to do would be to reach into the hearts and minds of the wearers.

I find nothing offensive in the mere physical appearance of the Burkini. Nor does it appear to be an impractical garment for the circumstances it was designed to be worn in. The Burkini is not quite like the Burka. Burkas were originally meant to be universal, commonplace clothing for women, yet they inhibit physical dexterity and the range of activities one can participate in today’s world, such as running for the bus, motorcycling, walking in the brush, exercising in the park or even driving a car.

The Burkini has no such shortcomings in my view, within its envisioned purpose. It is more or less like a loose, hooded wet suit, suitable for wading into the water, swimming (although a figure hugging wet suit made of the proper material might be more streamlined), or even hanging about the beach while avoiding a suntan. Burkinis might also be useful for those who have skin conditions or hair loss, which they’d like to hide when taking a dip. They come in attractive colors, can compliment a woman’s figure, and are pleasing to the eye.

I understand that the Burkini was designed with the good intentions. Aheda Zanetti presumably developed it as a step forward in the emancipation of Islamic women, allowing them to swim or wade in public places without revealing their skin and hair, thereby helping them to conform to the Islamic tradition of “modesty” in women. Women who wouldn’t swim beforehand, for fear of raising eyebrows in Muslim society by wearing a “revealing” swimsuit, are able to swim now.

I can appreciate the fact that some women, who have followed certain wardrobe habits through tradition, might feel an awkwardness to change them. Perhaps it may be similar to the awkwardness I felt the very first time I jogged in the park, in running shorts (I was a very shy teenager). I agree that you cannot be forced to wear something you feel awkward in, such as a swimsuit.

I don’t think however, that it’s a major leap of faith to change one’s dress sense. Islamic societies have been changing dress patterns rather rapidly at various points in history, in countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria or even in Sri Lanka, where I come from. Muslims have lived harmoniously in cosmopolitan Lankan society wearing both western and eastern (Sari) dress for centuries. It’s only within the past decade and a half that we Lankans have seen the Burka come into fashion amongst Muslim women. Their mothers didn’t wear them.

The Burkini and its “parent” garment the Burka cannot be isolated from the loud religious symbolism that underpins them. Anyone knows that Muslim ladies can only wear them, and that it would be an offence (in the eyes of a Muslim) for someone who doesn’t subscribe to the Islamic teachings to wear them. This is quite unlike other traditional garments such as Saris or a Kurtas, which were originally adorned by a particular culture, but with no exclusionist philosophy attached to them. Christian Lankans and Atheist Londoners have been seen wearing Saris and Kurtas for decades.

In a day and age where inter-cultural collaboration has led to better prospects for humanity, I feel it’s a little ostentatious to flaunt one’s inner religious beliefs as if it were the most important thing about oneself, to announce to the rest of the world. I feel the same way about the garb of Nuns or Priests, although in the case of nuns and priests, they by definition are renunciants from society. They would presumably like to discourage interaction with other people, except for solicited religious discourse. For women of the world, working closely with men and women of other cultures and religious denominations, I wonder if this flaunting of one’s religion makes good sense. It’s sort of like warning people that you belong to some intolerant cult.

Although some people might want to characterize Islam as such, I’m hopeful its not.

I am put off by the gender-demeaning symbolism of Burkinis and Burkas. The integrity and self-respect of both the genders are challenged by this symbolism. Just think about. In the case of the full Burka, we often find a well-dressed and otherwise attractive woman covered in what can only be described as a black cloth bag, to hide the “shameful” body she was born with. What are we ashamed of here?

Long before the advent of Islam, different human races had strived towards an optimal balance in body covering, balancing protection (from weather and sexual aggression) with display (of one’s unique identity and attractiveness). As dress senses evolved, we saw common patterns emerge, where one’s vulnerable places were often tastefully covered, whilst the rest of the body like the head, arms, hair, midriff and feet were often exposed (and adorned) for dexterity, recognition and beauty. Sure there were variations in the extent of cover, mainly based on climate. Those residing in temperate countries covered more of themselves because it was cold, and those in the tropics covered less because it was warm. There was no concept of hiding one’s entire body as a shameful object, with either gender. The fur coat of the Eskimo and the Sari of the North Indian are examples of naturally evolved wardrobe.

Furthermore, the majority of societies around the world developed systems of ethics, and rules of law, that strictly forbade women being molested by men at sight, for their bodily attractiveness. If we take Western Europe as an example, lawmakers and leaders improved social conditions over centuries, to allow attractive, figure enhancing dress to be worn by women, without being in danger of coming in harm’s way. The incidence of rape or violent sexual harassment due to the wearing of so-called “revealing” clothing is statistically insignificant in Western Europe today.

The philosophy of encasing women in order to protect them from the marauding instincts of men sets rather a low standard for men, and for the beautiful affair of human courtship. Since the days of the enlightenment, Western social norms neither accept nor allow disrespectful sexual submission; instead they expect high standards of restraint when it comes to sexual conduct. Women are not raped because they chose to be sexually attractive; rather, women occasionally get raped because of the psychopathic or violent behavior of errant men. Society trained to despise such men, and to protect the freedom of women (and men) to express their sexuality (i.e. capacity for sexual feelings and sexual orientation) openly, as a necessary part of friendly, nonviolent courtship.

Western traditions around courtship are fine-grained, such as reading the right body language before venturing into a kiss. Sex and courtship has evolved away from the course-grained affair described in the ancient religious texts, where women either covered themselves to look nondescript, or got plundered by sex-starved men. Courtship is about mutual attraction, love and consent today. Westerners or even easterners like myself who happened to grow up in liberal, evolved society, feel a tad uncomfortable to be implicitly branded as potential women-molesters.

I have this intuition that to be wisely dressed involves finding some middle ground between nudity and complete encasement in a cloth bag or skinny. Do you not feel this instinctively? That we should look nice and confident to others, but at the same time not offend others? That we should change how we dress based on our activities, our desire for comfort, and the weather?

If you do, I urge you to dress not for isolation, but for the occasion. If your society forbids you to do so, fight it nonviolently.

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