Bikini or burkini: women’s bodies and the morality police

Post 2 of 23

The mayor of Cannes has just banned women from covering up on Cannes beaches. A full cover-up of a woman’s body violates ‘good morals and secularism’, apparently. And a Toronto swimming pool manager also recently insisted that a ten-year-old Muslim girl ‘should wear a bikini’ instead of t-shirt and shorts (made of swimwear material), though her brother’s similar outfit was apparently just fine.

Curiously, there’s a major precedent for the mayor’s ban in the 20th century history of Iran: under the Pahlavi Shahs, wearing hijab or chador was first discouraged and then, in the late 1930s, banned. Yes, I know you can’t believe it. But. “Removing hijab became mandatory toward the end of Reza Shah’s rule and the Islamic hijab was considered reactionary. As a result, removing women’s covers by force had become part of routine duties of the Iranian police.”

So if there’s no objective reality to these attitudes to women’s bodies, what’s going on?

Coincidentally, I have just begun editing THE MALE CHAUVINIST for re-release in ebook format. I wrote the book in 1983, and here’s my opener:

The sea was calm today. Two sandy-haired, naked children were digging a hole to China with bucket, spade and their bare hands. Kate had seen them before, sitting primly at a table in the taverna with their parents, and they had then been totally unremarkable. Now their unconscious delight in their nakedness, their abandonment, transformed them. They pressed their wet bodies into the sand, they sprawled, they ran, they fell laughing into the sea, quite unaware of any taboo prohibiting the joy they experienced from their bodies. There was no self-consciousness about them, no sly awareness of their bodies as wrong or sinful. Just innocent delight.


Which was perhaps not the only sign that the world was changing. Up and down the beach, women of all ages and shapes went topless, demanding and achieving a new freedom— or the illusion of one, Kate reminded herself cynically. Because on most of the beaches of North America and England, these very same women would be protected—relatively decorously— by the now discarded tops of their brief bikinis.


As she would herself. And why was that? Why was her freedom being dictated like this by a simple question of geography? And since it was, could it be called freedom? Perhaps it wasn’t a question of emancipation at all, but of fashion? Perhaps she and all the other topless women along the half-mile stretch of Mediterranean sand were simply succumbing to a different style of fetter?


It was something to think about. Maybe something to write about, when she could manage the objectivity. For she didn’t want to believe that the freedom she felt in being able to swim or lie on the beach nearly naked and yet unmolested by strange men was only a conditioned response. For years she had felt hampered by the moral code that dictated the particular parts of her body that must remain covered in her particular society; she had felt it alien to herself. No inner voice had ever told her that certain parts of her body were shameful. She had always felt the arbitrariness of it, right from a child, exactly as she would feel now, if a missionary group from a distant planet had insisted that she wear coverings on her knees, or her ears, or her neck. And presumably all these other women now stripping down to the one essential covering still demanded by society felt the same?


So, if it was not instinctive in women, which could be proven a thousand ways here in Greece alone, by reference to the ancient Greek glorification of both male and female nudity, what had caused the taboo in the first place? Or who?


Well, monotheistic religion, for a start. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all seemed to have gone a little rabid on the subject of female modesty. But of course all the great monotheistic religions had more in common than the One God: they were all also fiercely male-supremacist.


Men. Would it always come down to men, in the end? Men, who, in the modem world, saw only certain areas of the body as sexual and therefore insisted— through the power of their ownership over women’s bodies— on their right to keep their possessions hidden from public view?


Was that why women of every age and shape grasped this new freedom so determinedly? Because it was more than just the freedom to swim unhampered by an extra bit of cloth? It was women’s staking out of a new territory of ownership over themselves, their own bodies.


Worth an essay, anyway, she thought. And how interesting— if predictable— it was, that men responded by de-sexualizing the breast. On this beach, anyway, the female breast was no longer an erogenous zone. The only men who looked more than once, even at those women who were obviously alone, were the old Greek men wandering up and down selling oranges, figs and cherries on the beach.


So while women saw this new trend as establishing ownership over their own bodies, men were simply abandoning the importance they had previously given the area called breast, and were satisfied that their ownership was still signified by that one area of the body still left covered. And presumably, if women began stripping completely, men would shift again, taking comfort in some other area of exclusivity, like cooking or sex—giving up territory in one area only to grab it in another, but always, ever, with the determination that women would not be free.


If she stripped off the tiny piece of material that lay between her and total nudity now, Kate supposed, she would immediately be plagued by stares and advances from all the lone male cruisers. It would be a sign of some sort, some sort of signal that she had abandoned the right to privacy, that she had no current “owner.” Yet if she moved one-half mile down the beach, to the so-called wild beach, the nudist beach of Corfu, she would attract no more attention than she did now here. Or, if she could go back five years in time, she might be arrested on this beach for having disposed of her bikini top. And not a few of the women now themselves going topless would be sniffing in outrage over her “behaviour.” Five years in the future—well, the trend then might be a continuation towards total nudity, or it might have leapt backwards to conventional modesty; she might get arrested five years in the future, too.


And the same people sniffing in outrage. Not, as they thought, because she was indecent. But because she was operating outside of the current trend.


I’d never heard of the Iranian ban on chador at the time of writing the above. If it occurred to me while writing to suggest that one day modest dress would be banned, I suppose the idea presented itself only to be dismissed as too far-fetched. Which perhaps only shows how difficult it is to think outside your own box, even when you think you’re doing so.