Beach burkini bingo

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Kath­leen Parker

WASH­ING­TON — Once upon a time, a scant­ily clad lass pad­ding down a beach might cause a riot — at least of eye­balls ea­ger to ex­tend the side­long glance.

To­day, it’s the fully clothed wo­man who over­heats the pas­sions in France, where three towns have banned the burkini. Leave it to the French to crim­i­nal­ize modesty.

Lat­est to the ban-wagon is the Cor­si­can vil­lage of Sisco, where three Mus­lim fam­i­lies and a group of lo­cal teens re­cently got into a row when one of the Mus­lim men be­came up­set as a tourist pho­tographed his burkini-clad wife.

The next day, riot po­lice were needed in a nearby town to quell 200 pro­test­ers who stormed a hous­ing area of mostly North African peo­ple, shout­ing “this is our home.” The pre­cise cause of that flare-up wasn’t known. Did a burkini do it? No clue, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, but Sisco is ban­ning the ul­ti­mate coverup, any­way, to “pro­tect the pop­u­la­tion.” Back on the main­land, the may­ors of Cannes and nearby Vil­leneuve-Lou­bet also have banned burki­nis. Two Mus­lim as­so­ci­a­tions un­suc­cess­fully chal­lenged the Cannes ban, but have promised to ap­peal the lower court de­ci­sion.

In the strangest jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of­fered for the wardrobe ban, Lion­nel Luca, mayor of Vil­leneuve-Lou­bet, said it is un­hy­gienic to swim fully clothed. For whom? The fish?

Ten­sions in France be­tween Mus­lims and oth­ers may be un­der­stand­able in light of re­cent events, in­clud­ing the July hor­ror in Nice when a truck driver shout­ing paeans to Al­lah mowed down hun­dreds of Bastille Day rev­el­ers, killing 85 peo­ple, as well as the re­cent ji­hadist slay­ing of the beloved, 85-year-old priest Jac­ques Hamel in Saint-Eti­enne-du-Rou­vray.

But how the prac­tice of modesty as­so­ci­ated with many Mus­lims’ re­li­gious be­liefs be­came an of­fense against the ma­jor­ity so­ci­ety is hard to fathom. The burkini also pro­vides an in­ter­est­ing study in the meta­mor­pho­sis of a sym­bol and its use in ra­tio­nal­iz­ing other be­liefs and ac­tions that bear strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties to the ex­treme re­li­gios­ity the caused such con­ster­na­tion in the first place.

Sud­denly, the burkini has be­come France’s Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag. Like the flag, the burkini means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple, yet it has be­come such a pow­er­ful sym­bol of the cul­tural clash be­tween overzeal­ous French pa­tri­ots and Mus­lim im­mi­grants that it has be­come a prompt to man the bar­ri­cades.

It is hardly shock­ing that women are the ob­jects of such ag­gres­sion. Or that men are the ones fight­ing over what women ought to be do­ing with their bod­ies. De­pend­ing on the era — and of­ten the pre­vail­ing re­li­gion — women are ei­ther show­ing too much or too lit­tle. Frankly, I’d like to see more not fewer burki­nis on the beach, es­pe­cially for Speedo-lovers over 50. Guys, do you own a mir­ror? (Please don’t send pic­tures.)

It isn’t just men con­cerned with burki­nis. Some fem­i­nists and the “en­light­ened” French see the burkini as a vis­ual face-slap to women’s egalite. Among other things, equal­ity means never hav­ing to cover up just be­cause your nat­u­ral self gets an­other’s gan­der up.

Non-Mus­lims in the West may dis­ap­prove of the prac­tice and pre­fer our mores over those of strict Mus­lims, but we’re in no po­si­tion to be smug. Less than 100 years ago in Wash­ing­ton, modesty po­lice lit­er­ally mea­sured women’s bathing suit skirts to en­sure ad­her­ence to the legal stan­dard of only six inches above the knee. In 1921 At­lantic City, women were also re­quired to wear stock­ings pulled above the knee with their swim­suits. When young women protested the stock­ing law, it was the League of Women Vot­ers that urged strict en­force­ment.

While beach pa­trols searched out bathing suit vi­o­la­tors, they also scouted for their ogling male coun­ter­parts, de­scribed in a news­pa­per story of the time as “bald beach lizards.” One brave wo­man, nov­el­ist Louise Ro­sine, went to jail rather than cover up her knees with stock­ings. It was “none of the city’s darn busi­ness,” she said, whether she “rolled ‘em up or down.”

We’ve come a long way, baby. And along the way, with few ex­cep­tions, we’ve found it pos­si­ble to al­low peo­ple to don (or not) their ap­parel as they wish. Some schools may ban mes­sage-em­bla­zoned shirts. And we du­ti­fully shed our jack­ets, scarves and shoes dur­ing se­cu­rity checks.

But lib­erte ought to mean that one can wear a burkini on the beach — or a thong, if you must. Nei­ther suits my per­sonal fancy, but it’s hard to imag­ine that a Mus­lim wo­man dressed tra­di­tion­ally is a threat to any but her own com­fort.

Like the lady said, it’s none of the city’s darn busi­ness.

Kath­leen Parker is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact her at kath­leen­parker@wash­post.com.

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