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Patriarchy’s full circle

The Mayor of Cannes was wrong to ban the "burkini"

By Jessica Abrahams  

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.

But it’s not always that simple. After the fall of the Taliban in the US-led invasion, Western newspapers were laden with images of newly-liberated Afghan women removing their burqas. Yet anecdotal evidence suggested that very few women had in fact stopped covering up, despite the overthrow of the regime. A study by Shahira Fahmy at the University of Arizona found that the proportion of wire photos (photos newspapers can buy from agencies) that showed Afghan women with and without burqas barely changed in the months before and after the invasion. But the tiny proportion (two per cent) of photos that showed Afghan women with their face and hair uncovered were suddenly everywhere because of what they were taken to mean: freedom at the hands of coalition forces.

That is not to say that Afghan women didn’t enjoy more freedom after the fall of the Taliban. Although many problems persist, at least some of them have more opportunities in terms of education and professional work (from which they were completely barred under the Taliban) than they once did. But the uncovering of Afghan women became a symbol of that freedom, actively referred to by journalists and news editors in the images they chose to use. And that symbol has also been adopted by politicians and others.

The burqa has become a cipher for the tyranny and misogyny of Islamic regimes in conflict with the freedom and equality of the West. As in decades past, women’s dress has become soaked in moral meaning. To be covered is to be oppressed; to be uncovered is to be free.

This is how we find ourselves in the bizarre situation in which women are to be penalised for failing to expose their bodies, since to do so is taken as a rejection of Western values.

It is true that the burqa is sometimes used as a tool for the oppression of women. There are places where it is imposed upon them, which always comes alongside other tight restrictions on their liberty. It is also true that, despite fierce opposition to begin with—despite the fines and detainment of those who fought for higher hemlines – women in the West are now free to show their skin. But there is a big difference between being free to uncover, and being forced to do so.

Those politicians in Cannes and beyond who are so concerned about freedom and equality should remember that the West has its own proud history of policing women’s dress, and that laws which attempt to do so wind us back 100 years.

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