The other side of the swimsuit story

This is a guest post by Manal Omar

During a recent trip to Istanbul for an international conference a colleague introduced me as the woman who got verbally attacked in Oxford for swimming in the burkini. It goes without saying that I would have preferred to be acknowledged for some of my more notable professional accomplishments. I did not choose to eclipse all my other achievements with an article I wrote two years ago for the Guardian about a Sunday swim in the pool.

I was forced to. Because silence for women is no longer an option. There is a responsibility to speak out against any violation of my human rights.

After swimming in my five-piece burkini in Oxford, a male visitor to the pool made a complaint (loudly and publicly) to the manager about my swim wear. After I remonstrated with both the manager and the visitor, the Oxford Mail covered the story (misreporting it and failing to contact me for comment). Its website then carried hate speech from readers for at least two weeks.

My article inspired endless debate that objectified me and my swimsuit. The debates discussed the issue in depth and were posted on everything from feminist websites to Islamic blogs. A vast majority of the comments posted attacked every part of my identity — as a Muslim, as an American, as a woman. That is not something someone chooses to do. It is not glorious. It forces you to become vulnerable in order to have your voice heard. In fact, I decided to do only one article for the Guardian on the subject and turned down all media requests from western and Arabic satellite channels that followed.

And now I am writing another. This time in solidarity with a Frenchwoman, who was banned from swimming in her burkini, because I know the decision to go public was not an easy one. I can imagine the sense of frustration and alienation that the international media attention is creating. I can bet on the fact that did not want to become known as the French burkini woman.
The incident has sparked wide debate in the western and Muslim world. The debates have centered on everything from the clash of civilisation to Muslim integration and immigration in the West to the hygiene habits of French pools.
Remarkably absent from the debate is women’s rights.

The main argument, and my personal favorite, is that the burkini is somehow unhygienic. Zeena Al Talib, founder and owner of explains that this is only true if the swimsuit is worn all day and made of non-swimsuit material. The modest Islamic swimsuit designed by Primomoda and made in Brazil is 100 per cent swimsuit material with quick drying properties and ultraviolet protection from the sun. Also, as much as I love my Islamic swimsuit — and I love my swimsuit — I don’t eat, shop, or drive in it. I am definably not going to be parading around all day in it (unless it’s a lazy day at the pool).

Of course I could also enter into a debate of whether a remarkably hairy Frenchman swimming in a tight trunks is more unhygienic than a high tech swimsuit. But the whole unhygienic point is moot. Sameera Fazili, an adjunct clinical lecturer at Yale Law School, points out that it’s not the first time that pseudo science has been used to assert social control over the female body. As a side note: Fazili has gone swimming in the Yale pool wearing her Islamic swimsuit without any intention of overthrowing her dean or threatening Yale’s academic institution. She just wanted to swim.

I am tired of the politicisation of women’s bodies. Despite what French politicians would like us to believe, Muslim women who plan a morning at the local pool are not scoping out the fastest route to the police station or media channels. They are most likely planning a day at the pool with their kids. A large percentage of modern Muslim women don’t want to be forced into segregated pools (if that’s even an option) where they swim without their families. The Islamic swimsuit provided a swimsuit for this modern wave of Muslim women.

Another shocking discovery for many Europeans is that Muslim women do not have a monopoly on modesty. A simple google search reveals several online companies specialising in modest swimwear for women of different faiths. One devout Christian woman designed the Simply Modest swimwear which provides Christian women with the opportunity to swim in a modest and feminine design. I bought one for my niece, who does not cover in full hijab but also does not want to swim in the traditional western-designed swimsuit. Throw into the debate the Christian version of the swimsuit and we began to shift towards a question of what is too much clothing. We are back to the age-old dispute of patriarchal societies trying to tell women what to wear. Too little or too much clothing is not at the center of the debate. It’s women’s right to choose — and that is a right every advocate of women’s rights needs to be prepared to defend.

Italy: “burkini” banned in Varallo Sesia

In the northern town of Varallo Sesia in Italy, women wearing the “burkini”, a garment made up of a veil, a tunic and loose leggings, face a fine of €500 if they are spotted at swimming pools or rivers. The mayor of the northern Piedmont town said: “The sight of a ‘masked woman’ could disturb small children, not to mention problems of hygiene.” Read more here

“Burkini” ban reignites French dress row

French officials have banned a Muslim woman from swimming in a public pool while wearing a swimsuit that covers her entire body. The woman known only as Carole had previously swum in July in the pool in Emerainville, east of Paris, in the “burkini” – a loose-fitting garment resembling a wetsuit with a hood. The management said this was for hygiene reasons, but she believes it was a political problem. Read more here