To bare or not to bare

For some reason I can’t get those news pictures out of my head – a woman surrounded by armed police being forced to strip on a French beach because she is wearing an a type of beachwear I had never heard of until recently – the burkini. Moslem women, who wish to dress modestly, wear this so as to be able to enjoy the seaside but not expose too much of themselves to public view.

There was a lot of hoo-ha at the time about freedom of religious expression and France, since the Revolution, being a proudly secular society. The burkini seems to be seen there as an aggressive religious symbol, a challenge to state authority rather than a practical solution to a feminine problem – how to be able to sit on the beach and take a dip in the sea when your upbringing requires and predisposes you to dress modestly.

It seems to me that Moslem women in France are trying to integrate into French society, by going to the beach at all. In their countries of origin they would probably not be allowed to sit on a beach with nearly naked men and women of another faith, or no faith, no matter how covered they themselves were. One thing we are seeing in those shocking photos is actually two cultures in the process of integrating – naturally, gradually.

I look at those stills, and think back to the news coverage, and I see several things.

I see that the woman is doing as she is told by the policemen, although what they are asking her to do is the equivalent of an Englishwoman being ordered to take all her clothes off in public – the equivalent in shame and humiliation.

I see a lot of native French women lying around in conventional swimwear exposing far more puckered, tobacco-leaf flesh than anyone could possibly be interested in seeing, and they are looking on as all this is taking place. Not one of them, let alone two or three, stands up, places themselves between that woman and the police, protests at the way she is being treated. And who reported it in the first place? Was it one of them, perhaps, calling from a mobile phone? Was it one of those who are looking down their noses and doing nothing? Whatever happened to sisterhood?

At what point did wearing too much become a crime? I think back to my childhood, and to my parents’ and grandparents’ times. When I was young the children usually had bathing costumes (not bikinis) but the parents often did not. Beach dress for women in England often meant removing your cardigan and stockings, maybe lifting the hem of your dress a bit when you went paddling, so it didn’t get soggy. Maybe you bought yourself a cheap straw hat to keep off the sun. Beach dress for men was often rolling up your trouser-bottoms, taking off your shoes and socks, rolling your sleeves to the elbow and knotting a handkerchief to put on your head and protect the bald spot. If a woman had walked along the beach in a bikini, people would have stared. They would have pointed and  laughed.


Margate beach, 1950s

Earlier than that, and not only in England, bathers would have worn long costumes to protect their modesty. They still had fun. Queen Victoria bathed from a mobile hut drawn into the sea by horses, and descended the steps clothed in at least as many modesty-protecting garments as the ‘burkini’ ladies.


I don’t suppose I’m any more hideous unclothed than anyone else my age, but I wouldn’t now feel comfortable to sit on a beach wearing a bathing costume. How much easier life would be for all women and girls whatever their religion, whether slim and beautiful but shy, pregnant, middle aged and overweight or ancient and wrinkly, if they had at least the option of the burkini or some burkini-equivalent at different times in their lives?

Being a child of the feminist movement I considered the whole first in feminist terms – is this the old Male Chauvinist Pig rearing his pink snout again – it is our right, as men, to objectify you, to scrutinise every inch of your flesh? But actually, I don’t think it is that. At least one of the policemen looks quite uncomfortable in this situation. He looks away as she takes her ‘top’ off, wanting not to see, not to be seen watching or maybe even not to be there.

Is it revenge, then? Is this really the way to get back at the violent extremists who have been attacking your country, to be seen standing over a few ladies of the same religion on beaches, making them disrobe? Why, if their jobs required them to enforce this newly-enacted rule, couldn’t they simply have asked the lady to leave the beach or issued her with a fine? The rule would still have been idiotic but at least the poor woman could have kept her dignity.

When did modesty in women become a bad thing? And why is it still OK for French nuns to go around fully clad in costumes which symbolise that they are Christians? Nobody knocks them off their bicycles or insists that they disrobe in the street. Why is it all right for long-standing religious communities such as the Amish, Mennonites and Quakers to wear the beautiful ‘plain dress’ and nobody takes it as a threat, just an expression of their faith? It’s just them, choosing not to draw attention to their bodies, choosing to be quiet.

amish women on the beach.jpg

Amish women on the beach, Chincoteague, Virginia.

Why is it only Moslem women who are commanded at gunpoint to be bare?