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Burkini ban: another tool of patriarchy

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OPINION by Thakira Desai

So spring entered with a bang – an Islamophobic, sexist, and misogynistic bang! On Tuesday 24th August, French police indignantly strolled onto a beach in the seaside town of Nice to ‘institute’ French law and ensure that all beach goers were reasonably naked. More astonishingly, the ‘fashion police’ proceeded to instruct a beach goer to remove the attire that she had been wearing, which officials described to be offensive to ‘good morals and secularism’. The woman’s black tights and blue tunic was said to be in contravention of French law, which banned burkinis’ in 15 towns.

The burkini, designed by an Australian Muslim female, Aheda Zanetti, is a loosely fitted water sport outfit that covers the entire body, except the face, hands and feet. The garment provides individuals with the freedom to enjoy outdoor activities whilst respecting their religious obligations.

The item of clothing, or similar versions, has to date been chosen by non-Muslim women in a bid to protect against the harsh rays of the sun or simply because they feel more comfortable in loosely fitted clothes.

Let’s tackle this notion of good morals and offensive attire…

We can safely say that ‘good morals’ differs from one society to the next, where some appear more ‘conservative’, others tend toward so-called ‘liberal values’. With regards to attire, dress code, or awra (parts of the body that expected to be covered in Islam), societies appear to have adopted varied opinions as well.

Moving to the west, a new tradition of freedom and liberation of both the female and male has developed, which has consequently led to the androgynous approach to representing ones identity.

This has been made evident in sports attire of females, where today female tennis players wear what many describe to be ‘under garments’, with the turn of the century, females were denounced if they had made visible their forearms.

Moving to the east, particularly the Middle East, females to a large extent decide on their attire as outlined by Islamic teachings. In certain regions, however, feminine attire is enforced by men in seats of power, in many instances portraying the Islamic approach as extreme.

So who controls the ‘good moral standards of female attire?’

While the French debacle was in many circles dubbed Islamophobic – not that I am negating that fact – one aspect that has been ignored is that while the ‘Islamic dress code’ of Muslim females has in many countries been criticized, the dress code of Muslim men has not garnered attention.

In a country that is home to thousands of Muslims, making up approximately five to ten per cent of the nation, it is almost inevitable that a ‘kurta wearing’ man has strolled down the streets of France. Considering that in a 1.5 per cent Muslim society living in South Africa, our ‘kurta wearing’ brothers are everywhere to be seen.

Now we ask what the real issues are – certainly not Islamic values!

Following huge international criticism and the consequent unbanning of the burkini, French prime minister, Manuel Valls spoke to the true issue – the male domination of what is considered ‘appropriate feminine beauty.’

In a political row over the burkini ban, on August 30, the minister criticized the attire expected to be worn by Muslim women while praising the nakedness of Marianne, a national symbol of liberty and reason of the French Republic.

So to not misconstrue Valls’ sentiment, here is his exact quote:

“Marianne has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the Republic!”

Unwittingly, the minister did not yield to the fact that Marianne, in the numerous depictions of her attire, is both covered and uncovered, even donning a red cap in one.

The minister’s argument not only defies the very notion of freedom of choice, but enforces upon females the expectation of what it means to be a woman – her “naked breasts” restricting her to being a mother, a sexual object, a vessel existing within the guidelines of male dogma.

While my argument curtails around the French banning and unbanning of the burkini, the broader ideals that surrounds the control of every aspect of females in every society is what concerns me.

Don’t tell me what to wear and what not to wear!

Growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, in a middle class Muslim family I, unlike my many friends in Durban and Johannesburg, to a large degree have been afforded the opportunity to choose my clothes and ideals with little contestation.  This freedom, not afforded to me by family or a dictatorship, but through my mere existence as a human being, has harnessed in me true love and understanding of my religion, Islam, and the code of conduct that it prescribes.

What has however ignited in me a certain degree of unwillingness to follow through, with what to my understanding is values that are based on sound logic, is the masculine dogma that dictates to me what my value system should be.  This journey of discovering the essence of MY faith – of clothing me in accordance with Islamic values – would have in all likelihood been much sweeter had my senses not been interrupted by misogynistic appeals.

While men walk the streets in denims and gym attire that leave very little to the imagination, we females are taught not to question the authoritative voice in society.  We instead, apologetically drape ourselves from head to toe or reveal more skin, convincing ourselves that we are acting according to our own will, but very rarely do we enforce our right to be the voice of Muslim women within society.

Let us not stand behind, have men dictate to us whether or not we should be covered or uncovered, have men dictate to us what feminine beauty includes, and have men dictate to us what is morally appropriate in female behaviour and what is not.

Let us enforce our right to exist and travel through life as free-thinking Muslim women that are guided by non-other than the Almighty, embracing and loving each step of our spiritual journey. And I ask my male counterparts – grant females the right to grow spiritually without enforcing upon us ideals that we may otherwise enjoy discovering the beauty there in.

So the burkini…

What has become a symbol of personal freedom for both Muslim and non-Muslim women, the diving suit – sorry I get confused – the burkini, has certainly called to the fore centuries of male domination over female attire and male assertions of what it means to be an XX chromosome!

Thakira Desai is a journalist and web content manager at The Voice of the Cape. She is also an advocate for the rights of Muslim women.  

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