The Mayor of Cannes was wrong to ban the "burkini"by Jessica Abrahams / August 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
In 1907, celebrated Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was in Boston when she decided to head down to the beach for some exercise. Kellerman was a champion; a multiple world-record holder who enjoyed international renown for her aquatic feats, including diving and long-distance swimming. When she reached Revere Beach she stepped into the water in her one-piece swimsuit with its high neckline and shorts, ready for a training session. But her plans were brought to a halt as horrified onlookers, accustomed to seeing women swim in bloomers and long dresses, called the police. Kellerman was arrested for indecency.
This was not a one-off. For decades, women faced being penalised for wearing the wrong thing to the beach or swimming pool. In some countries, officers patrolled the shoreline measuring women’s costumes to make sure they weren’t too short.
Now, in Cannes, the town hall has declared it will implement the same rule in reverse. The mayor has ordered a ban on “burkinis,” full-length suits covering the legs, arms and hair which are worn by some Muslim women and others who wish to cover their skin while they swim. Anyone breaching the ban risks being fined.
In just a century, we have come full circle: where women were once penalised for showing too much of their body, they will now be penalised for not showing enough.
This has not happened in a vacuum. In the past few weeks alone, a burqa ban has come into force in a Swiss canton, and similar laws have been proposed by senior political figures in Germany and Austria. A French waterpark was forced to cancel a special event for women wanting to wear burkinis after the organisers received threats; and Egypt’s Olympic women’s beach volleyball team provoked controversy by failing to wear the usual revealing two-piece bikini.
At the same time, we’ve seen pictures of Syrian women burning their enforced burqas after the city of Manbij was seized from Islamic State forces. These images are popular among news outlets because they are instantly recognisable by Western audiences as meaning one thing: the women, like their city, have been liberated. And of course they have. These are women who were forced to cover up on threat of severe punishment and whose freedom was restricted in countless other, no doubt brutal, ways.