ROJA FAZAELI: Cannes mayor wins gold medal for burkini bigotry and politics of shame

Tunisian women swim at Ghar El Melh beach near Bizerte, north-east of the capital, Tunis. Picture: Fethi Belaid/ AFP/Getty

I see parallels between my mother’s experience... and the latest French statements banning women in burkinis, writes Roja Fazaeli

I have always wanted to be a better swimmer. No time of the year throws this kind of desire in my face more than summer — and an Olympic year summer to boot!

In Iran we lived beside the Caspian Sea. On stormy days I could feel spray from the sea on our faces when we stood on the balcony of my grandparents’ house in Tonekabon, a small seaside city in the north of the country. Between 1980-1988, when I was growing up, Iran and Iraq were at war and economic sanctions were in place. There were no swimming classes and very limited sports opportunities, particularly for girls. During summers we begged any member of the family to take us to the sea. My mum usually preferred to come with us to make sure we were safe.

My mother herself is a fearless swimmer. She learned to swim in the Caspian Sea before the Islamic revolution of 1979. In her teenage years, she would swim far into the sea with her friends, all neighborhood boys and girls together. Boys swam in their swimming trunks. Local girls, including my mum, swam in T-shirts and trousers. My mum recalls tourists from other parts of Iran coming to the seaside and wearing swimming suits and bikinis. Local men would sometimes come to gawk at the sight of these “near-naked” women. After the revolution, a number of segregated spaces along the beach were established. A long wall of black fabric was erected that extended some hundred meters into the sea, bisecting the water into men’s and women’s swimming areas. Places like these were guarded, so that no one could transgress by swimming farther than the segregated area.

After the revolution, mum went swimming only a handful of times, normally at a small beach close to our house where there was no cloth barrier to intrude upon her swim. She said she could handle the T-shirt and trousers but that the post-revolutionary requisite attire of headscarf, manteaux and trousers really weighed her down. She recalls one time when she was in that patch of water a revolutionary guard signaled her to get out. When she asked the reason why the guard pointed to a man swimming at such a distance from her that he was barely visible; the water was obviously his.

Recently we took a vacation to Nice, France with my mum. There she would go swimming everyday. She wore a one-piece swimsuit with a T-shirt on top. She said the T-shirt made her feel more comfortable, and saved her skin from the sun. She still swam quite far and very well.

While we were in Nice, we read with some astonishment about the banning of burkinis in Cannes and Villeneuve-Loubet along the French Riviera. In the last couple of days, a Corsican town has also followed suit. As I understand it, the burkini as a form of modest swimwear aimed at Muslin women is relatively new, although I imagine a quick review of Victorian swimming togs would show that it’s not altogether innovative. In any case, it seems to have come into use over the past 15 years or so. As one might imagine it has been welcomed as making swimming and other forms of sport more accessible for a demographic of Muslim women who hold a certain understanding of modesty, often interpreted through sacred text or by way of community practice relative to physical dress.

The burkini has also picked up some fans cutting across creeds for the protection it offers from the sun, as well as from individuals who want to wear something functional and comfortable without worrying about body shape and image. There has also, inevitably, been critical interrogation along the way, most of this couched in the broad language of cultural identity and public health. However, last week the mayor of Cannes, a Mr Lisnard, won a gold for burkini bigotry when he managed to combine the politics of shame with the burden of blame in a public prohibition of the swimwear that linked burkinis to terror attacks and claimed that this most modest of garments was in fact unseemly, an affront to “good customs and secularism”.

Apparently in Cannes the men’s competition in adjudicating women’s dress and decorum is a pairs event. Thierry Migoule, Cannes’ head of municipal services, joined Lisanard on the medal platform following his statement that the burkini ban was about “…ostentatious clothing which refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements which are at war with us”. I see parallels between my mother’s experience of being asked to leave the Caspian Sea 30 years ago and the latest French statements banning women in burkinis from Mare Nostrum.

So often the politics of clothing are contextual. Back in 1936, during the reign of the Pahlavis in Iran, Reza Shah promulgated a decree forbidding the public wearing of chador and headscarf. This forced de-veiling programme was one component of what he understood as a modernization process for the country.

The shah’s decree was met with immediate opposition from both women’s groups and clergy. As a result during this period many women did not leave their houses. The force of such a pronouncement pushed them into a rather restricted private sphere, ironically a place they had begun to challenge just decades earlier when many of these same women had marched and demonstrated, heavily veiled and wearing chadors, in order to demand parliamentary integrity during the Persian constitutional period. 1979 changed the politics of the veil again in Iran; it became an emblem of the Islamic revolution. The ideal woman became a veiled woman, a woman wearing a chador or a headscarf.

The veil is a leitmotif in contemporary French history as well. L’affaire du foulard of the late ’80s and early ’90s and the burqa ban batted about over the past decade now resonate in this burkini discord. Should the French care to review Iran’s Janus-faced experience with regulation of women’s fashion they might discover that the use of legislation, or executive orders, as a way of controlling women’s bodies will be opposed by women who will fight to protect their agency. Many Iranian women did not like it when they were forced to take off their head coverings in the ’30s, and many certainly have not been happy to have been forced to wear them again over the past 35 years.

The idea of becoming a better swimmer is appealing because it promises control of one’s body in a fickle element. In these turbulent days, it seems the burkini may only be a beachhead. Let’s practice our strokes.

Dr Roja Fazaeli is a lecturer in Islamic civilisations in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies at Trinity College Dublin


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