Birkinis and Religious dress – choice, modesty, and freedom

You may have seen the anger and upset caused to the French by Muslim women swimming in what has become known as a Burkini. An all in one outfit that looks a bit like a wetsuit so offended the French notion of secularism that for a short while the French police required women to take off their clothes or leave the beach. It was such a shocking and, it seemed to us, a completely unreasonable rule, and yet many French friends find it an outrage that women dare cover their face in public or bodies on the beach. Fortunately the powers-that-be in France saw sense and relented. It is now OK to wear what you like in Nice.

Picture from The Independent

Dolce and Gabbana have done a luxury line of abayas and hijabs, for the muslim market, complete with pricey designer handbags and sunglasses.

Last week I went to Uniqlo to pick up a couple of t-shirts with Esme. And I saw a range of clothes that, initially, attracted me. Nice colours, shapes and what looked like some rather elegant full length dresses, with a range of scarves to match. Modelled here on western models, it soon became clear to me that this collection is a fairly stylish version of Islamic dress. We have a large Arabic population in our area so perhaps the shop thought it was worth featuring the range. But everything was reduced, and to my eye I am not surprised. Designed to hide a woman’s shape they are pleasant enough if your main objective is to obscure what lies beneath. And compared to a head to toe black burka they are relatively colourful and pretty. But I cannot see this collection appealing to the average Westerner.

The designer herself Hana Tajima is a “Mipster” (Muslim Hipster) of British-Japanese origin – pretty, creative and has clearly worked within limits – loose, unstructured, head to toe covering (in strict Islam just the face and hands may be revealed) – to create something intriguing. But I struggle with the idea that women have to cover everything up for fear of titillating a passing gentleman.

But please, don’t think I am having a go at one religion. Despite Jesus not caring one jot about what was on the outside fundamentalist Christians also have versions of “modest” dress. Phyllis Jean has four cute little girls who she dresses like their muslim sisters (but without the head scarves). The long-sleeved, ultra feminine blouses and traditional dresses are accompanied by bloomers. She explains that the bloomers are to “keep them covered”.

Most little girls love to play. They climb and roll, spin and fall down. Our girls love to play and imitate animals. They have no problem wearing dresses and don’t think anything of it. That being said, the girls don’t have the self-awareness yet of how they look while playing all these games. They wear their cotton bloomers to keep them very modest while they play in their dresses. We have had them wearing cotton bloomers from a very young age and it’s just part of getting dressed. It’s a good idea to start young, to keep them covered, and also because they are less likely to fight the idea of wearing them later on. If you are matter of fact about it then they will probably accept your decision to have them wear bloomers. Simply stating that little girls wear bloomers to keep them covered will probably be enough of a reason for them.

There are Jewish and Rastafarian women too who insist on wearing very specific clothes which cover the knees, or head, or other body parts. Here is some Kosher gym wear by Aqua Modest – the Skant (skirt/pant) that allows women to exercise in mixed gyms.

I wonder what you think of all this. While I am personally of the view that everyone should be able to wear what they like and what they believe in, I personally find the idea of suppressing allure somewhat pointless. Humans are sexual beings and how we look and dress enhances this, even if it is subtle. And personally I prefer a subtle look to a completely obvious flaunting. But each to his or her own, eh?


20 Responses

  1. Janet

    I think people should be allowed to wear what they want, and not have to defend or explain themselves. I have psoriasis, and choose to cover my legs and arms for my own comfort. I may want to purchase some of these clothes for reasons other than religion.

  2. Polly

    Fortunately Nigella Lawson was on Bondi beach when she wore a burkini and not in France. Australians are encouraged to cover up on the beach because we have the highest skin cancer rates in the world so it seems ironic that in France people are being told they are wearing to much clothing for the beach.

  3. Catherine Daze

    I’m horrified by the story from France – it seems a complete no brainer to me that forcing someone to remove clothing in public is just as illiberal as forcing them to cover up.

    I’m intrigued by the clothes collection but I have to say it’s a bit shapeless for me. I love a caftan though. If you’re going to go for concealment make it dramatic.

  4. Hari

    As long as I’m not forced to wear something I don’t want to wear, it’s none of my business what others choose to wear. Everyone has their reasons for adorning themselves. Vive la différence!

  5. Kerry

    An interesting but challenging topic, Kate. I am not a dedicated follower of fashion and never have been, but I do like clothes that are visually appealing and flatter the wearer and I cringe when I see outfits that I consider dowdy, such as long, shapeless skirts and blouses that do little to flatter the wearer. However, the little girls do look cute, BUT I would never dress four girls in the same outfit, nor would these girls choose to wear the same outfit as their sisters, would they? I have enjoyed seeing Indian women wearing their gorgeous saris and Sudanese women wearing THE most amazing outfits and colours. The birkini looks fine and is a clever way of ensuring Muslim women can enjoy the beach like everyone else, rather than sitting on the sand and being observers. Yes, freedom is about being able to wear what you like, in a society that may have different values and beliefs to yours, but in the end this focus on modesty is really about control, about hiding a woman’s body, her sexuality, her individuality, from the other half of the population: the men – which is a whole different discussion.

  6. Su

    On the news this morning Corsica is hanging on to its burkini ban… to maintain public order.

    Uncomfortable echoes of the men who attack muslim women in public, in the UK, pulling off their headscarves, and shouting abuse.

  7. eimear

    it was embarassing to see a woman being forced to strip like that – I generally cover up in sun as I don’t like getting a ‘colour’ – as in my case its generally uneven! I think women and their choice of clothing will always feel political – whether it be too little and seen as available, or being unfashionable and frumpy, hiding shape becasue of body issues – it can really get out of hand. I only have issue with face coverings and that is as much to do with balaclavas, motor cycle helmets, as well as full face covering veils. The first two are more ominous, but I think its important for human interaction to see someones face, even if we see a patterned wall, the brain will always somehow find something that resembles a face…..
    The most thought provoking piece on clothing in general I came across on tv, was of a documentary on indigenous tribes in south america, who traditionally would have been naked, but when they came into contact with ‘outside’ groups, they would steal their clothes…… when asked about this later… tribe member said, that when they saw these strangers with clothes thats when they became aware they had none and wanted them…… it reminded me of the bible reference to adam and eve ‘realising’ they were ‘naked’…..and I suppose one that starts then clothes become symbols…….

  8. ceci

    A very conflicting topic for me. On one hand the big uniformed armed men menacing the woman on the beach and forcing her to take off her clothes – so many implied and actual threats there of violence, rape…… On the other hand the adorable little girls required to dress all the same and with special undies that certainly DO “keep them covered” also seems rather forced and the mother’s message emphasizes the power parents wield. On the third hand, the highly sexualized clothes worn by children and teens here also seem inappropriately provocative and I can imagine a countering parental impulse to keep them safe by covering up (which reminds me of a note to parents from the local middle school principal years ago during a spell of very short shorts wearing: “if you feel uncomfortable when you see what your daughter is planning to wear to school, think about how I feel and tell her to put on some pants” ).

    So much to think about, I think I’ll do some fall sewing for myself instead.


  9. Mary Funt

    I think the event in Nice had more to do with politics and security issues than a dress code. I wonder if the same action would have been taken against a woman wearing spandex leggings and a long sleeved sun protection shirt? In my opinion you should be able to wear whatever you are comfortable in. I’m with Kerry that many religious dress codes target women and are a means of controlling them. Why aren’t the men subjected to the same requirements? What’s wrong with men that seeing a woman’s face, hair, legs, arms, etc. stirs up uncontrollable feelings?
    Here in the US, those who live in south Florida are covering up for a totally different reason: Zica virus. Maybe total body coverage isn’t such a bad idea.

    • fabrickated

      Thank you for your interesting remarks Mary, that certainly strike a chord. Of course women would have swum in full costumes until the 1920s and tiny bikinis are relatively modern. One thing that is concerning doctors over here is Vitamin D deficiency as all of us cover up more, and wear factor 30 sun cream, to protect ourselves from skin cancer.

  10. Carin

    I agree with Mary. And when did women’s clothing become a security issue? Virtually all of the attacks have been coordinated and carried out by men. A more logical response would be to require men to wear next to nothing.

  11. Amanda

    You’d think in this day and age a woman could wear whatever they wanted without getting harassed by anyone. For me, this is the real issue – whether a woman wants to wear a string bikini or a caftan, whose business is it but her own??? I’m so frankly tired of society making it public business how a woman dresses her own body. Don’t we already deal with enough shame and pressure regarding how we look? You don’t see men receiving this kind of treatment – something has to change here.

    • fabrickated

      Hear hear Amanda. I believe men too are constrained by dress rules too – for example they cannot (in western society) really wear a non-bifurcated garment. But primarily this is an issue of women being told how to dress and behave.

      • Amanda

        Perhaps it depends on the region – here in Western Canada, we have a wide variety of cultures so we see a fair amount of diversity in men’s dress. Kilts, as well as various Eastern traditional garb and cultural garments are pretty common.

        Here, at least, it’s less an issue of women being told what to wear, as much as women being JUDGED by what they wear, and how they look. Everywhere, it is an issue of women’s bodies being made fodder for public consumption, and that is a far deeper issue than dress code alone 🙁

  12. Mary

    I wear covering from head to toes at the beach because of my very pale and sensitive skin. When I first read about Sydney life savers wearing burkinis I thought they were fabulous and set about making my own. I live in a culturally mixed city and when my middle school daughter plays basketball there are often girls on opposing teams wearing modesty uniforms for various religious reasons. They have mobility and look just as stylish and filled with team spirit as their fellow players. Personal choice is key for dress. Women who are members of various religious groups choose their dress within the dictates of that religion. I choose to be completely covered at the beach. I think people are surprised when they see a fully dressed woman entering the water but they catch on pretty quickly. And as you can imagine my teen children are mortified to be with me, which is easy for them since they all inherited their father’s lovely tan friendly skin!

  13. BMGM

    Have you ever walked into a large room and been the only woman? (Out of 100+ seat auditoriums.) That was my life as a physics grad student 30 years ago. Yes, my dress was remarked upon and I responded by dressing like the guys.

  14. Jenny

    What an interesting debate and great comments. Freedom to dress as you want is a freedom in the UK we all enjoy but context is important. I once saw a stunning looking girl in Norwich city centre wearing a one piece black bathing costume, dark glasses and high heels. She virtually brought the place to a standstill! Nothing offensive but context made it memorable. And I think that’s why we dislike the French beach pictures of figures in authority hassling women because they are wearing too much. They should be allowed to just enjoy being there in whatever makes them comfortable. Thanks heavens sense has prevailed.

    But in a public service setting, like the current debate about full face burkas for police women, then I feel much less comfortable interacting with someone, other than casually, with their face largely obscured. It’s not a religious thing at all – I’d feel equally unhappy in having a discussion about my dental treatment with my dentist still wearing his face mask!

    What worries me more is the cultural motivation for the burka, all stemming from an oppressive sexualised view of women. But if that is how I was brought up then I guess wearing anything else out and about would just make me feel very uncomfortable. It is the oppression we should challenge not the women’s understandable choice to conform.

  15. Kim Hood

    A very interesting post Kate, and I have enjoyed reading the comments. I wondered what the reaction would have been had there been a similar show of force (for without doubt being told you aren’t dressed appropriately and being made to strip to comply is force) made on a European woman in a Muslim country.

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