Friday, 22 July 2016

Burkinis: oppressive or ok?

UPDATE: I wrote a blog expressing my unease about the wearing of the burkini swimming costume.

REBECCA BUTT has posted this response.

In all honesty, the title of the piece was enough to irk me. I said to myself, "here we go again, another unnecessary debate about Muslim women and the 'cold oppressive shackles of Islam'."

With Islamophobia on the rise, articles of this nature do nothing other than provide a platform for bigots to gather and share their uninformed and often intolerant views.

I don't want to imply that Simon had any bad intentions. However, it would be ignorant to turn a blind eye to the consequences such debates have on the Muslim community - especially when they are presented without understanding the subject matter.

More often than not, it leads to heightened hostility towards Muslims, in particular Muslim women, who are often treated with suspicion whilst simultaneously pitied for their perceived lack of freedom.

Simon's tweet posting the piece received many responses. Some of my favourites included, '[Muslims] should live by our rules' and '...I always seem to think, what are you hiding? Maybe it’s a trust thing with the world we live in today.’

Pieces like the one Simon wrote are read as statements as opposed to questions. This in turn leads to comments like the ones above being made in support of what the readers believe the writer had been stating.

Again, this all stems from a lack of understanding about the issue being addressed.

So let me try and break it down for you. Hijab is the Islamic concept of modesty and decency for both men and women, which includes behaviour as well as personal attire.

I think it needs to be highlighted that hijab is not, as Kevin MacKenzie implied in his article, only a symbol of faith like wearing a crucifix around your neck.

Hijab is a significant part of the religion of Islam and observing it is an obligation on its followers. Therefore, when a woman chooses to cover her head and body, whether that be on the street or in the swimming pool, she is practising her faith.

Objecting to this is objecting to her human right to freedom of religion. It's as simple as that.

Burkinis allow Muslim women to be able to swim whilst adhering to their religion. Despite Simon describing the burkini as a dark full-body swimsuit that covers every inch of the body except the face, most of them do not in fact cover the hands and feet; nor is there a requirement for the burkini to be dark in colour.

The burkini is made from a very similar material to ordinary swimming costumes and therefore is not hot, heavy, nor inappropriate for swimming.

I would like to assure Simon and anybody else who may have felt concerned for the women mentioned that the stares they received from the people around them would have caused more discomfort than anything else.

What people need to realise is that the majority of Muslim women who observe hijab, including myself, do it out of our own free will and happiness.

We do not feel oppressed. In fact, we feel liberated. We have not fallen victim to the social pressures which appear to dictate how women should dress and behave.

Therefore, people like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown who imply the hijab is part of a wider Islamic patriarchal system of control, fail to understand the true purpose of it.

And they fail to acknowledge the right Muslim women have to choose whether or not they want to adhere to it. Taking that choice away from them - whether it be banning burkinis, or imposing bikinis or a one-piece as the only suitable swimwear - is one and the same.

I went swimming yesterday (bear with me here) and there were two women in the pool wearing 'burkinis' - dark, full-body swimsuits.

Other than their faces, every millimetre of skin was covered, right down to the soles of their feet.

And, instinctively, without having really though about it, I felt uneasy. These visceral reactions can be telling, and also the ones we try to keep hidden.

Swimmers were staring at the women (who must have only been in their early twenties) and I wondered what they themselves thought about their attire.

My gut reaction surprised me, and I've been trying to analyse it since.

When I see women wearing Islamic robes or veils in the street, I don't think anything of it. And I found Kelvin Mackenzie's comments about presenter Fatima Manji ridiculous, because there wasn't even an established link between the perpetrator of the Nice massacre and Islam, at least not at the time of the Channel Four bulletin.

I was also angry that newspapers had described killer Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel as an 'ISIS soldier' and 'Islamic terorrist', when there was no evidence of this.

The intention was clear - to link his terrible actions with Islam - in a way that didn't happen with the killer of MP Jo Cox. And Thomas Mair had actually made political statements during the murder, according to eye-witness reports.

The difference? Mair is white and not Muslim.

But the 'burkinis' made me feel uneasy. The garments seemed so unsuitable for swimming, so heavy and all-encompassing, especially on a hot, sunny day; and so at odds with what the vast majority of people normally wear in swimming pools (some may liken them to wetsuits, but how many people go to the local baths in a wetsuit?)

The incongruity was stark, the inappropriateness too. The garments made a bold statement - about difference, about religion.

Should we be tolerant of women having to completely cover up, at all times, even when they're swimming? Should shops like M&S sell the burkinis?

Journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown said that in doing so, the company was "complicit in a version of Islam that believes women must be subjugated in public."

How would I explain the costumes to my young daughters? They always ask questions when they see something different and I always try and give open answers.

I'm not sure there would be a rational explanation.


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