The deeply disturbing photo of armed policemen in Nice, France, forcing a woman to strip off her burkini at a beach will hopefully never be seen again, now that the highest court in France has suspended the country’s ban on the cover-all swimwear worn by many Muslim women because it found that it "seriously and clearly illegally breached fundamental freedoms", according to the BBC.
Finally, the country that perceives itself as fiercely secular, but is perceived by its minority communities, Muslims in particular, as racist, has been told that what women wear is up to the women themselves, not the establishment.
When that photo went viral this week, the world was torn between arguments about secularity and religious discrimination. But whatever the particularities and politics of that searing issue, women all over the world argued about one deeply important point: the right to wear what they want without reference to what any establishment patronisingly believes is correct for women as a community. And this applies to whatever the clothing might be: Iran’s women are battling against the hijab they are forced to wear, while the world’s women are battling for the burkini to be worn if some women want to wear it.
Indian women have their own take on the issue, and it’s firmly against the burkini ban that was enforced in France till the court judgement yesterday.
As Maria Thomas writes in Quartz India, Indian women are far more comfortable fully covered in pools and on beaches than they are even in one-piece swimsuits, leave alone bikinis.
Thomas writes: “For Indian women, being covered gives them the freedom to go out and enjoy the water, without worrying about the way that their bodies look.”
That, Thomas points out, was the point of the burkini in the first place. She quotes its inventor Ahheda Zanetti who claims that 40 per cent of burkinis are bought by non-Muslim women. “The Jewish community embraces it. I’ve seen Mormons wearing it. A Buddhist nun purchased it for all of her friends. I’ve seen women who have issues with skin cancer or body image, moms, women who are not comfortable exposing their skin — they’re all wearing it,” Zanetti told ‘Politico’ as quoted by Thomas.
On NDTV.com, feminist and CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat writes: “If French women's groups had a sense of their own history, they would be buying burkinis and wearing them on every beach in France to defy the irrational ban. Here in India, the Embassy of France should be made aware that women in India have a sense of strong solidarity with that burkini-clad woman in Nice.”
Karat explains the issue by speculating what would happen in India if women were permitted only one kind of swimwear on its beaches and in its pools. “Suppose all foreign tourists were banned from wearing bikinis or the kind of swimsuits they do? Suppose assertion of dress choice was criminalized? You would think India had been converted into a fundamentalist theocratic state,” Karat writes.
As it is, she points out, women in India often don’t wear swimsuits at all, preferring to cover up even in water by wearing their salwar kameez or saree. “Burkinis, unlike a salwar kameez or saree, do not billow out in the water, are modest and convenient and are becoming quite popular in India,” she says.
But it’s the politics of the issue that annoys Neha Poonia who writes on News18.com: “Many voices asked, how could forcing a woman to wear less clothes be qualified as bid to impose secularism? How much of what we saw in Nice was misguided Islamophobia?”
Poonia compares the French court’s order to revoke the ban on burkinis with the Bombay High Court’s order yesterday that permits women to enter the sanctum sanctorum of Mumbai’s Haji Ali Dargah, where women were not permitted.
“France wants Muslim women to be appear to be more secular in their sartorial choices by abandoning the hallmark of their religious identity,” Poonia writes. “Clerics in India want women from the community to stick to the limitations laid down as per their reading of the Quran… What is 'unIslamic'? Who defines that?”
Poonia refers to ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ - the battle cry of the French revolution that overthrew monarchy to bring in democracy.
“Where do 'liberté and égalité' come in?” she asks about the burkini ban.
That’s what women all over the world want to know.
Feature image credit: vice.com