Change begins at home: Stop blaming France for the Burkini ban

Published: August 30, 2016

The garment is purely patriarchal, as much as we try to deny its origin. Yet, it is wrong to ban it. PHOTO: TWITTER

When I lived in Saudi Arabia, religious policing of women’s bodies was the norm. I remember a time when my mother and I were casually strolling down Suwaiket street – one of the most busiest and populated areas in downtown Al-Khobar – when we suddenly witnessed the religious police, most commonly referred to as ‘mutawa’ (or mutaween for plural) approach a young woman, and angrily demanded that she cover up, as she wore the abaya (full Islamic body covering), with the scarf resting loosely around her shoulders, her face and hair bare.

When the woman, who was too shocked to speak or didn’t comply right away, he proceeded to raise his cane, ready to strike her across the legs and lower back for not covering up. What happened next is unclear, as I was too young, and my parents made sure we cleared the scene as quickly as possible so that I wouldn’t be exposed to such vulgarity.

This wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed or heard from others about incidences where these mutaween approached women, sometimes striking them first before demanding that they cover up. The only time women were allowed to uncover was either at home or within the confines of the compounds that they lived in – a town within a town, where women were allowed certain freedoms and privileges to do and dress as they pleased.

However, this was two decades ago. And in these two decades I have come to realise that the policing of women’s bodies is not only limited to places like Saudi Arabia; a reality that I have finally come to terms with, as for the longest time I believed women in the west possessed full liberation and rights over pretty much everything, including their own bodies.

And while this is true for the most part, things haven’t been as affable for Muslim women within Europe, more specifically France, over the past decade. Thus, my vision of women’s liberation in the west was quickly shattered when I learned about the French ban on the wearing of ‘conspicuous religious symbols’ in 2004, and further in 2010 when the ban was decriminalised through the Senate of France to specifically include the Muslim face veil, commonly known as the niqab.

And just when we think that France will give this whole ‘banning’ business a rest, it decides to go ahead and ban something else: the “burkini” – or, to put it more precisely, disallowing women to wear swimsuits that pretty much resemble a wetsuit. As a matter of fact, to even call the suit a ‘burkini’ is highly erroneous, as it looks nothing like a burka, which is supposed to be loose and flowy.

If you’ve seen pictures of women wearing the burkini, you will realise that it is quite form fitting – an image that would most likely be deemed un-Islamic and unacceptable by many Muslim clerics. Yet, France seems to have a huge problem with this because it happens to be a garment that stems out of Islam – the very religion to which they’ve been the recent targets of terrorist attacks.

What the French don’t realise, however, is that this so-called burkini has no correlation to those attacks, nor should all Muslims be painted as raging terrorists, ready to blow themselves up in the name of Islam. This is anti-Muslim bigotry at its worst, and it is not only a vilification of human rights, but is also extremely undemocratic; especially when democracy is a value that the country seems to proudly uphold.

Yet, how can France consider itself a democracy when just a few days ago, on a crowded beach in the city of Nice, armed police forced a Muslim woman, wearing this so-called burkini, to strip it off. These policemen are no different than the mutaween who force women to cover their hair/face in places within Saudi Arabia. It is just as oppressive, demeaning, and an encroachment on the rights of women who want to dress as they please in clothes that they feel most comfortable in. And it may even perhaps be a choice; women may choose to wear the conservative swimsuit for many reasons that are not even religious in the first place.

Reasons may simply include safeguarding from the sun or not feeling comfortable showing their bodily ‘flaws.’ Or, it could be enforced. Whatever the reason, the wetsuit just makes it that much more easier for, and instils confidence in, women to get out of their homes and enjoy the outdoors.

Mind you, these are women who may not even be allowed to leave their homes without a male chaperone in the first place. These may be women who have been forced to wear the headscarf, of course by the males in their family, and going to the beach, despite being covered from head to toe, may serve as a sense of liberation and entitlement for them – a luxury that they rarely get a chance to indulge in.

So, why take this privilege away from these women? Why make an already seemingly oppressed woman even more oppressed? What good will it serve these women, when they should instead be praised for having the guts to partake in a public activity that they would otherwise never be allowed to partake in had the burkini never existed? I mean wasn’t this the reason why the burkini was invented in the first place, as Aheda Zanetti, the creator of the swimsuit says,

“When I invented the burkini in early 2004, it was to give women freedom, not to take it away.”

I admit, I personally am not an advocate of women’s garments that include wearing the veil and a headscarf, but I would certainly never ban a woman from wanting to wear it. I do not have the right to impose my beliefs on someone else. At the same time, I am not a fan of the burkini either – I actually wouldn’t even call it that, because to me it is clothing that stems out of oppressive forces. Most Muslim women wear this garment, because it covers their body, confirming their piousness and virtue in the eyes of the men who have enforced it on them.

The garment is purely patriarchal, as much as we try to deny its origin. Yet, it is wrong to ban it. French men have no right to tell Muslim women that they are being oppressed by wearing this specific garment, when they, too, are acting no different in their tyrannical approaches. It is oppression when men force women to veil. And it is also oppression when men force women to un-veil. Both times, patriarchy has taken full precedence and it’s time that men stayed out of women’s affairs, and just let them be.

At the same time – and, here I will be the devil’s advocate – I also feel that it is unfair that so much outrage is directed towards the burkini ban, when Muslim and foreign women alike, in ultra-orthodox Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, are forced, punished, and demeaned for showing their hair or uncovering parts of their body, i.e. arms and legs, that they are not supposed to reveal, in public. I wish we would raise our voices against this forced oppression as well, because it is oppression as much as we try to deny it. We need to condemn countries like Saudi Arabia for publicly hitting women, and humiliating them, just like I had witnessed all those years ago for not covering up. We need to raise our voices against enforcement of the headscarf/face veil on women, just like how we are condemning the French for being hypocritical and tyrannical in their enforcement of the ban.

Nevertheless, the most distressing thing about this whole ordeal is that France will respond to the outrage on the burkini ban, and even go as far as to overturn it. And the most recent news on the issue has revealed that France’s highest court has actually overturned it. Yet, chances of overturning the enforcement of the head covering/face veil will never see the light of day in the orthodox Islamic countries in the east. This is where the root of the problem lies. This is why anti-Muslim bigotry exists, and keeps flourishing – and this why women, and their bodies, will always be targeted and objectified time and time again.

Perhaps it’s time we directed our rage where it should have been directed a very, very long time ago. Because if we had, maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t have to deal with outlandish issues such as the burkini ban in the first place. If we sincerely tackled the issues that our women are constantly suffering from on a daily basis, in places like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc perhaps things would have been very different for them in the west.

A woman’s clothing should never be banned, nor should any article of clothing ever be enforced on her. It’s time we realised this hypocrisy within us and find ways to rectify it. After all, change begins at home, doesn’t it?


Samar Esapzai

The author is a mommy, writer, visual artist and academic. Her areas of interest include gender relations, women's empowerment, maternal mental health, and anything and everything related to her people, the Pashtuns. She blogs at and tweets at @sesapzai (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • michael

    Somehow this ban became about oppressing women, when in fact it was the voice of many French citizens who don’t want Islam around, not with the blood of innocents still in the streets. The ban was designed to keep the peace. Seems very sensible. Dress codes are everywhere and Muslims can leave their costumes elsewhere. Point is, it’s nonsense to defend burkinis on feminist grounds – the garment itself is oppression of women. The French should have stuck to their gunsRecommend

  • Reddy

    premise of the article itself is devoid of facts, first no person leaves his home country for another country to turn the host country in to a replica of his homeland, except for muslims
    you do not go to a school in a foreign country to change their menu,but muslims do exactly that,if possible you wud even turn every school into a mosque with 5 breaks

    even more interesting fact is, in sweden there are places where non-muslims aren’t welcome,actually sweden’s authorities issue advisories to non muslims especially to jews to avoid certain areas after 6pm …Recommend

  • mimi sur

    Ms.Author, not only pakistan or Saudi , Many so called liberal Islamic countries also follow this. Last year Miss world event was not allowed in Indonesia because naked skin seduces Muslims . And then it was shifted to a Hindu-dominated area in Bali Island . So when a pot calls kettle black, there is no way other than retaliation.Recommend

  • 19640909rk .

    Madam, BAN is a BAN. If people hate it, they should go and settle in Saudi Arabia, where they get whipped on streets by a man whom they do not even know (if it happens to any of my female relatives- this guy would be dead-police or not).

    France is the pioneer in the world regarding human rights. Muslims flock to france to have a good life (or escape their brothers who are killing them at home)- not the other way around.

    All said and done, women in west need not cover up elaborately like in Muslim countries. I was in a German town recently, where there were a bunch of topless women protesting in the streets regarding some discrimination. Nobody gives them a second look there. Recommend

  • vinsin

    What about secularism and gender equality? Does Burkini support those two or oppose them? Burkini makes Muslim men to harass and abuse women (mostly non-Muslim). Have you ever wonder why in subcontinent in human trafficking most male are Muslims and suffers non-Burqa clad women? Wasnt Burqa made so that Muslim men can harass non-Muslim pagan women in those time in Arabia?


  • Bairooni Haath

    There is only one reason these women choose to wear a Burkini. To show that these families will never integrate into society. To show that their loyalty lies with a Imam who chants abhorrent things about their host country. It is an indication that their children will grow up misfits and outcasts in society. Better for France they understood the long term harm from allowing these religious symbols.Recommend

  • Phantom

    1) If a Muslim was born in France, who are you to tell them to go live in Saudi Arabia?
    Maybe you should go settle in some cannibalistic tribe in Africa…

    2) France is not a pioneer regarding human rights…where are you getting your propaganda from?

    3) Poor German Women need to go topless to protest against discrimination and you are proudly giving their society a thumbs up for not giving them attention?
    maybe you need to learn about women rights before you walk all over them…Recommend

  • Phantom

    History…go read it.
    Take a look at all the former colonies of the west…you will find a lot of the western culture has been introduced. In the subcontinent, they wear western clothing, eat western food, and speak…omg English!
    How dare the Muslims go to Western countries and demand to take their culture with them!
    Everyone has the right to take their culture with them wherever they go…get used to the idea…its been around since ages…Recommend

  • Phantom

    Maybe the women should decide what is oppressing them…and not you or the French?Recommend

  • simrah

    if we begin talking about all these facts then it can go on for a while, wouldn’t it? But who’s gonna bother talking to an apparent person who’s already filled in with so much of disgust and hate towards a sect that’s the world’s second largest religion and about which he literally has no idea. Now tell me Mister, Trump is a disgusting person but you can’t catogarize whole damn America and assume all of em are as disgusting and vile as him now,can you? I’m pretty sure your answer is in negative. Hence, kindly keep your idiotic judgement to yourself no bloody one is trying to ‘enter into your country and trying to make it as a replica of “ours”‘ Because practically, if billions of people even tried doing that to you, you wouldn’t be here, There is both evil and good please understand that and try to live practically. peace and love, always.Recommend

  • simrah

    Sir, firstly let alone all those ‘Muslims’ that you are so directly accusing of ‘murder of all the innocent lifes’ Here, you are the one that seems ignorant. Do you even know what really is symbol of peace? A symbol of peace is when every human being is treated justly and equally irrespective of their color, race, religion, shape. When they are given the basic freedom of life. When no innocent man is judged just by the way ‘they dress’ or what their religion is. Do you notice how i said INNOCENT? Yes sir, innocent. Just like you (im not so sure tho) or any other ordinary human being. The author had a point when she talked about their democratic policies, if they actually can’t tolerate ‘Muslims’ as you state, they shouldve put a ban on their entrance but we all know Muslims are not the problem, it’s the mindset of people like you who rudely call the way a woman likes to dress a ‘costume’ just because she likes to cover her OWN damn body and calls a woman FREE when she is naked? Dude, covered or not until and unless a woman isn’t forced into doing something it isnt oppression. I dont want to get into that whole ” who’s the terrorist then” arguement with you which you probably are going to start. Just letting you know while peacefully eating my nachos and nutella and watching an amazing movie after praying Namaaz, please get over yourself and stop hurting people’s sentiments. PEACERecommend

  • PatelPara

    home? So now Pakistanis will talk about Saudia Arabia. Grrrr.. you can’t compare France & Saudia Arabia.Recommend

  • Jay

    can women decide in Saudi if they wanna drive ? DRecommend

  • Reddy

    of course,i don’t have any idea about islam, just like every person who claims to be a muslim has no idea,except for saying islam is not what IS,KSA,al-quida,iran,libya,iraq etc fallows,that’s almost entire muslim population …when you learn what it is pls let me know,until then keep talking ….Recommend

  • Reddy

    history is not your strong suit,don’t even try,pizza,burger wasn’t even introduced in subcontinent until 90’s,just like curry restaurants,chinese restaurants across london etc…it’s called globalization not islamization lk making normal meat a halal meat or turning schools into mosques…Recommend

  • Milind A

    The Western culture (shirts/trousers etc) were not forced on the subcontinent. It was accepted due to convenience & glamour, as was technology, democracy and other progressive practices. Likewise religious practices (in some countries), food remained indigenous. In fact regressive and barbaric religious practices were put to rest in progressive religions like Hinduism, Christianity or animist religions in Africa.Recommend

  • El Cid

    Don’t you think that German women must be under extreme duress to have to protest topless to get some attention to the discrimination against them. And yet got no attention. Is that not very sad? And sick?

    Do you think had they gone bottomless too it would have increased their chances of getting some attention to the discrimination being exercised against them?

    Do you think it is an indication of a good and just society where women have to parade naked to have their grievances addressed?Recommend

  • Phantom

    Was English introduced in the region in the 90’s? What about western clothing? Did that wind up there in the 90’s too?

    Your history teacher probably forgot to tell you that globalization works with religion as well.
    Just like Christian churches found their way to the subcontinent, don’t be surprised to find mosques find their way to the west either.

    And halal meat has been around in the west…it was called kosher meat…you against that too?Recommend

  • Phantom

    And no one is forcing anyone in the west to adopt the burkini. If anyone is buying it, it is due to convenience.
    Take your biased shades off and maybe you will see better.Recommend