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The burkini is just a bathing suit!

By Sanaya Dalal
Last updated on: August 30, 2016 15:18 IST

If you’re against an entire people on the grounds of the faith they follow, you may as well rally against an entire gender on the basis of physiological differences, says Sanaya Dalal.

A woman, wearing a burkini, walks into the water at a beach in Marseille, France, a day after the country's highest administrative court suspended a ban on full-body burkini swimsuits at beaches August 26

IMAGE: A woman wearing a burkini walks into the waters at a beach in Marseille, France, a day after the country's highest administrative court suspended a ban on full-body burkini swimsuits at beaches on August 26. Photograph: Stringer/Reuters.

Can of worms, check.

Can opener, check.

Here we go.

'When, as happened recently in France, an attempt is made to coerce women out of the burqa rather than creating a situation in which a woman can choose what she wishes to do, it’s not about liberating her but about unclothing her. It becomes an act of humiliation and cultural imperialism. Coercing a woman out of her burqa is as bad as coercing her into one. It’s not about the burqa. It’s about the coercion.'

That's Arundhati Roy talking. It's a quote that has resurfaced in light of the worldwide furore created by the French police, who allegedly forced a Muslim woman to remove her burkini on a beach in Nice a few days ago.

I disagree with what Arundhati Roy has to say most of the time. Separatism, Kashmir, Naxalites... the woman sure knows how to stick her head in an oven. And this quote of hers may sit right with plenty of people, but it got me thinking.

See, Roy is a hardcore feminist. So am I. For all you wimps out there who toss that term around without having a half-assed clue as to its actual definition, I’ll spell it out for you -- ‘feminist’ does not refer to man-hating bra burners who believe in making 21st century men pay for 16th century patriarchy.

A feminist is an individual, of either gender, who recognises the struggles and oppression that women have faced for thousands of years and believes in equality of the sexes.

So why not use the word ‘equalist’, you ask? Because the latter fails to adequately touch upon the baggage that drags on the heels of every woman ever born. Essentially, a lot of right-thinking people are feminists; they just don’t know it. And since feminism has become a dirty word, that most are wary of identifying with, misrepresentations continue to reign supreme.

Feel free to gasp here, but a feminist can actually be a stay-at-home mom who goes on the school run, lays out breakfast for her husband and does the dishes. It’s not about housework, for heaven's sake, it’s about what you believe in. And I believe that the burqa has justifiably come to be construed as a symbol of oppression.

Sure, you can accuse me of cultural imperialism right at the onset, but here’s my problem with what Roy has said. ‘Coercing a woman out of her burqa is as bad as coercing her into one.’

True.

It is, however, the obligation of a democratic society to do away with oppression. So if a slave was to say, ‘I’m happier in my shackles, they’re part of my culture’, does that actually translate into freedom of choice, or is a deeply-ingrained form of fascism at work, where an individual succumbs to a patriarchy-driven practice spanning centuries?

Take the whole Shani Shingnapur fracas that took place in our own backyard. Equal rights activists decided that women were no longer to be denied entry into the temple’s male-only inner sanctorum, a restriction that dates back 400 years. They had the government on their side, the Constitution on their side and the Bombay high court on their side.

But when they marched into the shrine after their legal victory, there were hundreds of local villagers at hand to try and thwart their attempted visit by force. Half of those villagers were women.

So you have women fighting women. Trying to get their own kind to buckle beneath the blows of patriarchy.

Why?

‘Religion’. ‘Tradition’. ‘Culture’. ‘Heritage’. ‘The majority’.

It’s so easy to take these words and turn them into the battering ram that is threatening our very existence today. And by that same logic, if you’re telling me that the burqa is just another traditional garment associated with a particular culture, as innocuous as a native African headwrap, forgive me for blanching.

By that same reasoning, the swastika is just another ancient spiritual symbol which we here in India associate with all things auspicious, so let’s conveniently forget that a representation of it was at the helm of the greatest recorded genocide in history.

Oh, I know all about how the burqa came into existence, harsh desert climes and all that, and yes, when liberated Muslim women today claim to wear it as a matter of personal choice there’s really no arguing with them. But the fact remains that while some of these women are empowered, they are in the minority; most across the world are coerced into wearing the garment, simply because it’s deemed un-Islamic not to.

The Quran does not specify that women have to wear a burqa. Or the niqab, which even conceals the face. Or a burkini at the beach. Its verses regarding women and moderate dressing are open to a wide number of interpretations, polarising moderate and fanatic Muslims.

Saudi Arabia has interpreted modest dressing as complete head-to-toe coverage, and now France has interpreted secularism and national security as no burqa. Saudi Arabia says to put it on, and France is saying take it off. The argument is, essentially, that if I’m a vegetarian, I have no business frequenting a steakhouse and then complaining that I’m revolted by the food. If a particular way of life and its societal norms are not to your taste, leave.

Yet, smack in the middle of this black and white divide lies a distinctly grey area. I’ve tried hard to get it to resolve itself with the rest of my opinions on this subject and permit clean lines to prevail, but I can’t in good conscience.

Because here’s the thing. The burkini is not a burqa, and it doesn’t carry the latter’s weighty connotations despite the similar-sounding terminology; it’s just a bathing suit.

The French police making that poor woman divest herself of it in Nice seemed discriminatory, cruel and completely unnecessary. In all fairness, she chose a form of swimwear that covered her up from head to toe just like a wetsuit.

The burkini is not just for Muslims; the designer who created and christened it has gone on record to state that 40 percent of her clientele are non-Muslims. Some are men. And some -- feel free to gasp again -- some of them are actually Orthodox Jews.

But in today’s terror-swayed world, wear a burkini and you’re marked prey (unless you’re Nigella Lawson). Heck, a floral headscarf can lead to racial profiling.

That’s not secularism and that’s not feminism, it’s out and out Islamophobia. And if you’re against an entire people on the grounds of the faith they follow, you may as well rally against an entire gender on the basis of physiological differences.

The burqa may have no place in modern European society. If you ask my opinion, any potential instrument of communal or gender oppression has no place in any society.

But we have to learn to tell the difference between a reasonable assertion of beliefs and marginalising a people. Thank heaven the highest administrative court in France already has -- in a landmark ruling, they’ve overturned burkini bans across the French Riviera, and rightly so.

Like I said before, it’s just another swimsuit. It resembles a pant and tunic. So what?

Sexism masquerades as religion. Sexism masquerades as tradition. Sexism masquerades as divine instruction. Sexism is the perpetration of a misguided belief that a golden cage affords you a better life than the world can offer.

Haven’t we fallen for it long enough?

Sanaya Dalal was formerly the assistant managing editor, rediff.com.

Sanaya Dalal / Rediff.com
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