Daily Star

Aug. 26, 2016

The Burkini: Another victim of globalization

Riad Tabbarah

Everyone knows by now that the burkini, or burquini, is the creation of a Lebanese-born Australian designer named Ahedi Zanetti. It is a swimwear that does not differ much from a wetsuit generally worn by divers, windsurfers, and other water sports enthusiasts, except that it is made of swimsuit material, is looser, and much more colorful and elegant. It was created originally in the early 2000s for Muslim women who did not want to expose their bodies while swimming, but is now worn by a multitude of women, including Jewish-Haredi women in Israel, women and children wanting protection from the sun, and others. The designer claims that 40 percent of her sales are for non-Muslim customers. Suddenly, this swimsuit became the center of controversy when a number of French Côte d’Azur towns banned it. The ban spread to other sea coasts of France including “Sisco” in Corsica, and is planned in “Oye-Plage” and “Le Touquet” on the English Chanel. The mayors of the last two towns “admit to never having seen [a burkini],” according to the New York Times.

Why the panic?

The reasons given by the French officials are varied, unrelated, and illogical. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced that the burkini “is not compatible with the values of France and the republic.” Laurence Rossignol, families, childhood and the rights of women minister, declared that the burkini’s “logic ... is to hide women’s bodies in order to better control them.” The reason advanced by Sisco officials for the ban was simply to “protect the population.” An official of the city of Cannes, the first town to ban the burkini, declared it “clothing that conveys an allegiance to the terrorist movements that are waging war against us.” The mayor of “Villeneuve-Loubet,” said, that “it is unhygienic to swim fully clothed.” Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post exclaimed: “For whom? The fish?”

Some observers have invoked analogies from the past in order to put things in perspective and demonstrate the illogic of banning the burkini. Actress Annette Kellerman, it is said, was arrested in 1907 in Boston for wearing a one-piece knitted swimsuit that covered her body, tightly, from neck to toes, something similar to the burkini, on grounds of indecency. Parker mentions that, in the early 20th century, modesty police in Washington “literally measured women’s bathing suit skirts to ensure adherence to the legal standard of only 6 inches above the knee.” Remona Aly of the Guardian recently reminded the readers that, in the ’50s, “the itsy bitsy bikini was ... banned in Spain, Portugal, Australia, Italy and many states across the U.S. It was even banned from the beauty pageants after contestants in the first Miss World scandalously wore the two-pieced swimwear.” In fact, the history of women’s swimwear, from the full-body type to the string, is replete with conflicts between those claiming that they show too much and those who claim that they show too little.

But these analogies do not reflect the issues of today. They were disagreements within the same cultures, between “liberated” individuals and “conservative” or religious individuals; between those who were “ahead of their times” and those who were “behind the times.” The issues now are more complicated. This time the differences are not within cultures but among cultures. They are brought about by factors that have little to do with liberalism and conservatism in a given society, but by the fear from an intruding culture. It is not the burkini itself that is the issue, it is what the burkini represents in the minds of much of the French population, in the context of their rejection of the recent flood of Muslim refugees and the terrorist incidents that were perpetrated, not by refugees, but by French Islamists. It is certainly not the fact that the burkini covers the entire female body that is at issue. The picture of nuns having fun on the beach, fully attired, does not illicit the same reaction on the part of the predominantly Catholic French. No ban could ever be imposed on Jewish Haredi women playing on French beaches fully clothed, or in a burkini. The 2016 summer Olympic games in Rio were preceded by a wide coverage by fashion magazines, French included, discussing the new and varied fashion attires worn by athletes, including burkini-like modest attires, and did not illicit any negative reaction from the French media.

The French reaction to the burkini is part of the largely western reaction to “human globalization,” that is, to the melting of borders and the mixing of people of different cultures and ethnicities, which is taking place at an accelerated pace. As I have argued in earlier articles in The Daily Star (July 5 and Aug. 9, 2016), this is true both in Europe and in the United States. It is, in all cases, the fear that the invading cultures will change the receiving societies in their favor and take away the political privileges traditionally enjoyed by the native population. In continental Europe, it is basically the unjustified fear that the flow of Muslim refugees will change the Christian identity of the continent. In England, it is basically the resentment of the immigration of eastern Europeans, particularly Poles. And in the United States, it is the growing political power of the non-white population, particularly Hispanics, blacks and Asians, who actually elected President Barack Obama, in 2008 and 2012, in spite of his receiving only a minority of the white vote. It is this “human globalization” that lays behind the sudden surge of nativist, anti-immigration and Islamophobic political parties in continental Europe, as well as the successful Brexit movement in England. And it is the same phenomenon that lays behind the popularity of the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, among the white population in the United States.

But “human globalization,” like its twin sister “economic globalization,” is an inevitable and relentless process that will continue and intensify in future no matter what resistance is placed in its path. Sooner or later the rational political forces will likely prevail, but not before a lot of harm has been done, particularly, but not solely, in terms of anti-terror laws that curtail human freedoms, as happened already in the United States, France and elsewhere. In France, at present, the political leadership of practically all parties has joined the chorus against the burkini, while anxiously eyeing the surge in popularity of Marine Le Pen and her nativist “National Front.” There is no hope in the horizon for the rise of a charismatic French leader who would swim against the tide to defend the burkini. And the poor burkini; it will probably go down in history as another French victim of the globalization of mankind.

Riad Tabbarah is a former ambassador of Lebanon to the United States.

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