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Of burkinis in fashion, Rio, bans and freedom

The banning of the burkini in several French towns has made it the most debated garment in the world. The irony lies in the fact that it was meant as a symbol of liberation for Muslim women, but is now being viewed as a symbol of enslavement of women.

Written by Shruti Chakraborty | New Delhi |
Updated: December 21, 2016 9:26:59 pm
Burkini, burkini fashion, burkini nigella lawson, burkini swimwear, burkini ban, Burkini ban in France, burkini in france ban, Nice attack, Bastille day attack, 14 july france attack, Why all this fuss around burkinis, also known as modest swimwear? (Source: Tim Wimbourne/Reuters, Wikimedia Commons)

France has been on a burkini ban spree, citing their main concern as one pertaining to wearing religious clothing in public, in the wake or recent terrorist attacks in the country. Photographs of French police asking a woman on the Nice beach to remove her burkini have kept the focus clearly on the controversial ban. Responding to the uproar, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls defended a ban on burkinis in more than a dozen coastal towns, saying France was locked in a “battle of cultures” and that the full-body swimsuit symbolised the enslavement of women.

This is an interesting interpretation of the garment, as most Muslim women have the exact opposite perception of the full-body suits. Take the recent Rio Olympics Games, for instance. There were several instances of Islamic athletes competing wearing a burkini – which, given the rules of the faith they follow – would have been an unlikely occurrence had the garment not been in existence.

So, what is a burkini?

Burkinis, also known as modest swimwear, was designed by Australian designer Aheda Zanetti relatively recently in 2004. They are full-body swimsuits with a play on the words bikini and burqa. It is designed in such a way that the entire body of the one who wears it is covered except for the feet, hands and face. Nothing like either a burqa or a bikini, the swimwear rather resembles wetsuits with a hood attached. Burkini was popularly in headlines when Nigella Lawson — English TV personality and food and gourmet writer — wore the “modesty-covering” burkini on Australia’s Bondi beach, to protect her skin from the sun, according to a report by The Telegraph.

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With the sun and surf an integral part of the Australian lifestyle, Zanetti had designed the swimsuit so Muslim women, who choose to wear a head covering like the hijab, could participate in water activities and other sports.



The burkini was designed for freedom, says its creator

“They have misunderstood what the burkini is all about,” said Aheda Zanetti, adding that anyone, no matter their religion, could wear it. “I hope that they understand that it’s not something that symbolises anything – that anyone can wear it, that it’s not harming anything in any way…The burkini was designed for freedom, flexibility and confidence. It was designed to integrate into Australian society,” she said, adding, “I don’t understand why a piece of fabric is taking over all of these really important issues?”

Burkini in fashion

Zanetti had reportedly designed the burkini to cheer her niece who was playing netball wearing something totally inappropriate for a sports uniform – a skivvy, tracksuit pants, and her hijab. That is when Zanetti decided to launch a sportswear for Muslim women so they feel restricted no more.

In March this year, popular British retailer Marks and Spencer began selling burkinis to appeal to women across countries, the swimsuits started flying off the shelves and came into the mainstream, and more and more Muslim women took a shine to the garment — covering yet liberating, simultaneously. According to reports, after the French ban, the M&S burkini collection has actually sold out.

Celebrity designer Masaba Gupta, in a column for an Indian national daily, recently wrote about how she felt the burkini should not be banned. She said she advocated everyone’s right to choose what they wear, and to follow certain dos and don’ts of their faith. While she supported being “body confident, and having the freedom of expression”, the designer also felt one should dress for the occasion, time and place.

The ban has upset Muslim designers around the world. “Wearing a burkini is not a political statement, rather a choice of dress,” said Rabia Zargarpur, a Dubai-based designer. “For Muslim women, burkinis are a symbol of liberation, not repression. Muslim women who were uncomfortable or unable to swim in mixed pools or beaches are now taking part in those activities. And women can wear a wetsuit with a hood for multiple reasons including preserving modesty or sun protection,” she told WWD.

Even the hijab — traditional veil of Muslim women has found its way into the mainstream now, with popular fashion brand H&M even featuring a Muslim hijab-wearing model for the first time.

Burkini at the Rio Olympics

Recently, athletes at the Rio Olympics wore the burkini while participating in events, and made more headlines for their attire than for what they were actually in Rio. Doaa Elghobashy from Egypt, who played beach volleyball in a burkini made headlines for her burkini sportswear than for her aptitude at the game. Kariman Abuljadayel, first Saudi Arabian woman to compete in the 100m event, also wore a similar attire.

(Source: AP/Reuters) Doaa Elghobashy from Egypt and Kariman Abuljadayel from Saudi Arabia (Source: Reuters, AP)

France’s ban on burkini

And this is why the burkini has suddenly become the most-debated piece of garment in the world. France is known for its insistence on adopting ‘non-religious fashion’ in public spaces, that is, any attire or clothing that pertains or highlights a particular religion is not encouraged by the French government. France’s ‘turban ban’ made news in 2004, when the country banned Sikhs and those of other religions from wearing a headgear resulting in anger and protests worldwide. However, the French embassy in New Delhi clarified in February this year that there was no ban on wearing turbans in public spaces and the restrictions only apply within public school premises. The burqa remains banned though, owing to security reasons, ever since 2010.

This recent ban on burkinis comes on the heels of a spate of attacks across France by Islamic militants. Last month, a Tunisian killed 85 people when he drove a truck into crowds in Nice and a Roman Catholic priest had his throat cut in church by two French Muslims. And in November, 130 people were killed by bombings and shootings in Paris.

Around 15 towns in France have banned the burkini, mostly in the south-east part of the nation, an area where the far-right is strong and which is a gateway and home for many immigrants. David Lisner, the mayor of Cannes – one of the towns that recently banned it – called burkinis a “symbol of Islamic extremism”. In Cassis, where the ban is in place, a beach-railing sign reads: “Because of the terrorist threat, the security forces and army are on a heightened level of alert.”

Though, Lionnel Luca, the mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet in the French Riviera, gave hygienic conditions as a reason for the ban. “I was told that there was a couple on one of our beaches where the wife was swimming fully dressed, and I considered that unacceptable for hygienic reasons and unwelcome given the general situation,” he told AFP.

Even former French president Nicolas Sarkozy told a magazine that France under President Francois Hollande had become too timid. “The Burkini is a political act, a militant act, a provocation. Women who wear it are testing the Republic,” he said. To which, British author JK Rowling tweeted: “So Sarkozy calls the Burkini a ‘provocation’. Whether women cover or uncover their bodies, seems we’re always ‘asking for it.’

Burkini versus world

To think that France is the country with a conservative view of the burkini would be incorrect. A spate of attacks against civilians claimed by militant group Islamic State, notably in Belgium, France and Germany, has sharpened the debate, with a large influx of mainly Muslim migrants to the continent also giving rise to resentment among some Europeans.

In Austria, some politicians have called for a ban on full body veils; Belgium banned the niqab and it is forbidden to wear the burkini in many municipal swimming pools, but not at the beach; in Germany, the conservatives want a partial ban on the face veil; and Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano has said that Italy will not follow the example of some French towns in banning burkinis.


The hijab and niqab have long been a subject of debate, and now the burkini has been added to the mix. The discussion, now, is not only the viewing of these garments as symbolistic of female oppression by a certain section of society, but also the misinterpretation of them as representative of Islamic terrorism.


With inputs from PTI, Reuters and AP.

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