Annette Kellerman in swimsuit. The champion lady swimmer and diver was arrested in 1907 for indecency, due to her swimsuit ending above her knees.

It’s been over a hundred years since Annette Kellerman was arrested for her choice of swimwear, and sadly not much has changed. In 1907 the vaudeville star and professional swimmer caused outrage with her ‘revealing’ attire on Revere beach in Boston. She was wearing a one-piece, short style bathing suit that ended just above her knees,

We bet the conservative beach-goers of the Victorian era could not imagine a day in which a woman could be persecuted for wearing too much clothing, but thanks to the “burkini ban” here we are. The reasoning behind the ban is allegedly to help protect French citizens from terrorism, but many see it as yet another blow for the rights of women.

Image courtesy of The Associated Press.
Image courtesy of The Associated Press.

On the 24th of August photographs emerged of French police forcing a Muslim woman to remove some of her clothing on a beach in Nice. Onlookers reported those nearby telling the woman to ‘go home’, while her young daughter sat crying. Local leaders have described their actions as “appropriate and proportionate,” but unsurprisingly the ban, which now covers 30 coastal areas in France, has caused a divide in opinion across the globe. Unfortunately, now other European countries are following suit. A burkini-clad woman was asked to leave a pool in Vienna this week for what were supposedly for reasons of hygiene and safety, reasons which the wearer claims is absurd.

Photograph: Aheda Zanetti. Courtesy of The Guardian

For those not in the know, a burkini is a full-body swimsuit that covers everything except the face, allowing Muslim women to swim freely while adhering to their religion’s modesty edicts. However, the ban also extends to any full-length clothing or head covering on the beach, to abide by what Nice authorities consider “respectful of accepted customs and secularism.” Yet so far there has been no news of women covered in typically western clothing or wearing sun hats on the beach being fined, and reports of such events are unlikely to ever happen.

In reality, the ban is a reaction to a recent spate of terrorist attacks in the country, including the Bastille Day truck attack in Promenade des Anglais and the ISIS murder of a priest at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray. Although both crimes were perpetrated by male supporters of ISIS and not women in burqas, once again it’s the female population shouldering the blame. The question is, why?

Image courtesy Getty Images

The ban has spread from one resort town to another due to fears over immigration. A burqa is an obvious visual signifier of religious differences. It doesn’t matter if the woman wearing traditional Muslim dress was born in the country, or a certified French citizen, she is still viewed differently by her secular peers. It’s why Catholic nuns aren’t receiving the same disturbing treatment for their habits, or men in wetsuits aren’t being harassed by local authorities on a daily basis. The debate on Islam in the country has always centered on women, who regularly find themselves the target of racial abuse. It’s far easier for politicians to point the finger at them than it is to face up to their own glaring inability to fix France’s socio-economic issues, ignoring the fact that moves like this play right into the hand of extremists.

Image courtesy of Agence France-Presse.
Image courtesy of Agence France-Presse.

This may be why the French Women’s minister Laurence Rossignol is in favour of the ban. Although he has stated his belief that burkinis should not be viewed in the context of terrorism, he does claim they are contradictory to women’s rights: “[The burkini] has the same logic as the burqa: hide women’s bodies in order to control them.” Apparently forcing women to show their bodies is much less of a problem for him.

Those who use this argument tend to ignore the fact that the majority of Muslim women choose to wear the hijab or burqa as a symbol of their faith, rather than because the men in their lives tell them to (although this sadly does happen in parts of the world). It’s a personal choice that bans such as this one take away from them, and that’s an issue that not only Muslim women should be concerned about, but all women.

Sydney, AUSTRALIA:  Muslim fashion designer Aheda Zanetti (L) makes adjustments to her Islamic swimsuit worn by Australian model Mecca Laalaa (R) at her shop in Sydney, 12 January 2007. The new "Burqini" is marketed as the first two-piece Muslim swimwear for women and is attracting customers from North America, Europe and across the Middle East.  AFP PHOTO/Anoek DE GROOT  (Photo credit should read ANOEK DE GROOT/AFP/Getty Images)
Sydney, AUSTRALIA: Muslim fashion designer Aheda Zanetti (L) makes adjustments to her Islamic swimsuit worn by Australian model Mecca Laalaa (R) Photo: ANOEK DE GROOT/AFP/Getty Images

On the plus side, the inventor of the burkini, Aheda Zanetti says sales have skyrocketed since the ban, although she never intended for her creation to become a political statement. “Because the burkini swimsuit is freedom and happiness and lifestyle changes — you can’t take that away from a Muslim, or any other woman, that chooses to wear it,” said the 49-year-old Lebanese designer. “It was also my aim for them not to be judged for who they are, or where they’re from, and who people think they’re representing.”

There is evidence that Kellerman, if she were alive today, would be pro-burkini. In the 1950s, she declared the bikini a “mistake,” surprisingly because it shows too much! “Only two women in a million can wear it,” she said. “It shows a line that makes the leg look ugly, even with the best of figures. A body is at its most beautiful when there is one beautiful, unbroken line.”

Sounds a lot like a burkini to us…

-By Sophie Lloyd for The Untitled Magazine.

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