Several French seaside towns have in recent weeks banned women from wearing the burkini—a full-body swimsuit design—on its beaches. In instance this week that has become widely discussed, police in Nice were photographed apparently forcing a woman to remove the blouse she wore over her bodysuit.
The word “burkini” is a portmanteau of the burqa–the loose head-to-toe garment with a mesh slot over the eyes worn in public by women in some Muslim countries—and the bikini. Online sales of the garment haven’t been dented by this month’s crackdown; in fact they’ve shot up 200%, according to its creator Aheda Zanetti. And in fact, on Aug. 26, the ban in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet was overturned by France’s top administrative court. The decision is expected to set a legal precedent for the other French resorts that have similar bans.
The burkini is the latest clothing item to get caught in the crossfire as France balances its values of secularism with religious freedom. In 2011, France became the first country in Europe to ban the burqa and the niqab veil. Seven years earlier, it passed a law preventing students in state-run schools from wearing any form of religious symbols, including all types of veils.
Zanetti says she designed the burkini with the intention of giving “women freedom, not to take it away,” and it’s history is a fascinating convergence of secular fashion and religious traditions.
The Quran does not specifically mention the burqa. The text does stipulate that women (and men) should behave and dress modestly in public, but the specifics—precisely which body parts should be covered, for example—are open to various interpretations. As a result, numerous styles of Islamic dress have emerged, reflecting “local traditions and different interpretations of Islamic requirements,” writes (paywall) Caitlin Killian, a sociologist at Drew University.
The relevant verses in the Quran (according to the BBC’s interpretation) say:
Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, [a list of relatives], [household servants], or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.
The Quranic term for “veils” above is khimar, a head covering, rather than hijab, which translates literally as a partition or curtain, and refers to the broader principle of observing modesty. “The veil itself….predated Islam and was practiced by women of several religions,” writes Killian. “It was also largely linked to class position: Wealthy women could afford to veil their bodies completely, whereas poor women who had to work either modified their veils or did not wear them at all.”
Today, the burqa is most commonly worn by those practicing more traditional interpretations of Islam.
The bikini as we know it today emerged in 1946. Its designer, Frenchman Louis Reard, coined the term as an homage to the atomic bomb testing in Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. He is said to have chosen the name because he expected the garment to trigger the same sort of shock and explosive impact on culture as the bomb had on geopolitics.
At the same time, fellow designer Jacques Heim introduced his (admittedly less skimpy) version of the two-piece, dubbing it the atome.
But as the Smithsonian Magazine notes, the garment’s history goes further back than the immediate post-World War Two period, with illustrations from the 4th century in Rome “showing women wearing two piece athletic garments as early as 1400 BC.” Reard’s version was a bit more daring; he declared that the bikini wasn’t the genuine article “unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring.”
It didn’t take off immediately, in large part because some feared it as a threat to propriety. Prior to the 1950s, Spain and Italy passed measures banning women from wearing the bikini on their beaches, the Vatican declared it sinful, and it faced resistance in several US states before becoming a more accepted item of seaside attire in the 1960s. Today, in most parts of the US and Europe, no one bats an eye at the bikini.
Lebanese-Australian designer Aheda Zanetti designed the garment and named it by fusing the terms burqa and bikini together in 2004. ”I had to look the word [burqa] up,” she says, “and it was described as a kind of coat and cover-all, and at the other end you had the bikini, so I combined the two.”
She told the Guardian:
It was about integration and acceptance and being equal and about not being judged. It was difficult for us at the time, the Muslim community, they had a fear of stepping out. They had fear of going to public pools and beaches and so forth, and I wanted girls to have the confidence to continue a good life… I wanted to do something positive—and anyone can wear this, Christian, Jewish, Hindus. It’s just a garment to suit a modest person, or someone who has skin cancer, or a new mother who doesn’t want to wear a bikini, it’s not symbolising Islam.
Zanetti has since said that 40% of burkini sales are to non-Muslim women. “The Jewish community embraces it,” she told Politico. “I’ve seen Mormons wearing it. A Buddhist nun purchased it for all of her friends. I’ve seen women who have issues with skin cancer or body image, moms, women who are not comfortable exposing their skin—they’re all wearing it.”
Yet, as history would suggest, no matter what sort of clothing women wear on the beach, their choices will always be policed: