The Burkini Ban
How About We Start from Within?
In 2016, images of armed French officers forcing a woman to take off her burkini at the beach surfaced on the Internet. A burkini is a type of swimwear that covers the entire body and hair, suitable for hijabis. The officers were acting under the laws of their city, which, like other cities in France, had banned burkinis at the time.
The general response on social media was outrage, especially amongst Arabs and Muslims. When I saw the news, I was horrified, imagining myself forced to take off my protective layer under four men’s gazes. This incident was only one case that became viral; who knows how many more never reach the public eye?
I was angry at France and their“secular” laws. I was angry at Islamophobic people. I could not imagine the anger and fear coursing through that woman’s body.
Little did I know that Islamophobia hides right under our noses.
Last summer, my family and I went on a vacation in the mountains of Lebanon. We had found the perfect hotel: antique décor, a big balcony, and cool, tranquil weather. At the reception, my mother asked about the pool. She needed to swim to keep her post-surgery arm from getting stiff. The receptionist answered, “Yes, of course. The pool is available if the men would like to swim.”
A moment of silence.
My mother gave a half-laugh. “And the women?”
The receptionist bit her lip and explained that burkinis were not allowed. We were almost too dumbfounded to respond. My mother had once told me that there were instances when she had not been allowed to swim in some hotels back in Syria either, but I thought that was a thing of the past. Surely, Arabs of different religions have reached a point of reconciliation? When it seems like the entire world stands against us, surely, we could at least support one another?
Why are private resorts in Arab countries banning the burkini, a sight that should be familiar considering the numbers of Muslims here?
But no. Over the next two days the receptionist and the manager asked us to please understand, it wasn’t their fault. They were only upholding “the hotel’s policy.” My father asked what the policy stated, and we tried to argue against it. Visitors must wear proper swimwear (invalid argument; burkinis are made of the same material as any other swimwear) that consists of one or two pieces (invalid argument; go ahead and Google images of burkinis; they’re usually two pieces with a head piece, but if you’re going to count the head piece then you should also count swimming caps, which would make bikinis three-piece swimsuits).
And while the Lebanese government has its issues, this“policy” was not their doing. We found another hotel, only twenty-five minutes away by car, that allowed us to swim.
The case of the first hotel is not an isolated one. Friends have told me that this ban occurs in other Arab countries as well, such as Morocco and Egypt, where hijabis are not even allowed to sit on some private beaches. While the ban in France was under the name of secularism, these enterprises cited “hygienic reasons.” This excuse stems from a lack of knowledge—or maybe a lack of willingness to acknowledge—that women do not wear their own undergarments beneath the burkini. On the contrary, it often comes with its own swimming-suitable lining.
To put it into fewer words, both France and these private resorts in Arab countries were acting under a common incentive: prejudice.
Unlike France, however, the resorts were not following city laws. Their prejudice was the work of individuals.
In some ways, that’s scarier.
How can we expect other countries to respect our values when the same disrespect resides amongst us?
I find myself raising two questions I have yet to find an answer for: One, why are private resorts in Arab countries banning the burkini, a sight that should be familiar considering the numbers of Muslims here? Two, why are those situations not garnering social media attention?
I speak from personal experience. When the ban in France happened, my Facebook feed was flooded with the news; on the other hand, I only heard stories of the bans in Arab private resorts when I pitched this piece to my writing class.
I know that a national ban and individual cases of private enterprises are not on the same scale, but how can we expect other countries to respect our values when the same disrespect resides amongst us?
And it’s not like it’s impossible to ensure that hijabis are allowed to swim in private enterprises. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, I never have to worry about the matter. I can swim in pools and beaches, public or private, in a burkini—or a bikini, for that matter—and no one would bat an eye. I can even find places that allow women only, so that I feel more comfortable.
It’s going to take a collective effort to reproduce that freedom of swimwear in other Arab countries where some enterprises issue the ban. The change may start with a post on social media, or a review on the hotel’s website, or a report to the relative authorities.
But until then, whenever my family and I go on vacation, we will have to check beforehand whether burkinis are allowed.
Einas Alhamali is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi. She was born and raised in Syria but has also lived in Lebanon and the UAE. In her free time, she reads novels, watches anime, and anxiously solves 1000-piece puzzles.