The Burkini Isn't a Religious Duty

A bather wearing conservative Muslim dress in Turkey. Flickr/Charles Roffey

The burkini is the product of mores defined exclusively by conservative Muslim males.

The debate over the so-called “burkini” in Europe has taken a sharp twist in the United States, emboldening those who support wearing the burkini not only as a matter of human rights but also as a matter of religious duty. This perspective on the burkini could not be farther from the truth and only reinforces the conservative Islamic view about the role of women in society.

The debate over the burkini began in France as a logical extension of the ongoing deliberations over the place of Islam in French society. The burkini controversy highlighted societal fault lines over the concept and application of laïcité, or broadly speaking, the separation of church and state. Coming in the wake of terror acts in France, the burkini affair deepened the polarization of French society when the State Council suspended the ban that was initially issued in July 2016 by the mayor of Cannes. It prevented “access to beaches and for swimming . . . to anyone not wearing appropriate clothing, respectful of moral standards and secularism.” Some hailed the decision as a victory over Islamophobia and stigmatization of Muslims, while others denounced it as an act of surrender to the creeping Islamization of French society.

Surprisingly, the burkini controversy was taken up in the United States to corroborate Islam’s outsized role in public life and to underscore Muslims’ personal relationship with God. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Shadi Hamid asserted:

If you’re a Muslim woman who wears the hijab . . . you can’t wear just any swimsuit. Some women, of course, are pressured or even legally mandated to wear the hijab (as in Saudi Arabia and Iran), but most choose to do so; it’s about their personal relationship with God. Regardless of whether we like it, the predominant scholarly opinion today is that wearing hijab is fard, or obligatory.

This rationale not only misses the foundational ideology against which the view of women developed in Muslim society, it also reinforces the conservative and/or Islamist view concerning women and their role in society. The first Arab Umayyad dynasty expanded its rule from its capital in Damascus to Spain through military and political means, often discouraging conversion to Islam. Muslim historians accused the dynasty of relegating Islam to traditional Arab ideas and customs. Notwithstanding the fact that some Abbasid caliphs were hedonistic, the second Arab Abbasid dynasty (750–1258) inaugurated the period in which Islam (and its practice) was incorporated into religious schools, in tandem with centralized efforts to settle theological disputes, regulate society, and justify Abbasid rule on religious ground.

It is in this early period of Abbasid rule that the view of women in society took its final indisputable shape through the modern era. Building on preexisting Abrahamic beliefs and views, themes of cunning, plotting, enticing, cheating, seducing and sorcery enveloped the view of women in Arab Muslim society. With the blessing of rulers, who promoted polygamy and concubinage both as a matter of supremacy and pride, the religious scholars of Islam, the ulema, vindicated the view that women are associates of Satan and the instigators of fitna (strife). Consequently, women had to be confined and their sexual desire curbed so that fitna would not endanger the peace of Muslim society. Therefore, marriage and the veil became necessary vessels to protect society. In fact, marriage and the veil worked hand in hand in securing peace in society. They secured fidelity and inheritance, satisfied male desire and hid impotence, and most importantly, subdued women as an aspect of submitting to God.

This view of women easily trickled along the centuries. Preventing strife during period of social upheavals became a religious duty. Rebellion against a ruler was equivalent to fitna brought about by uncaged, unveiled women. Admonitions and warnings against the unveiling of women whiffed Muslim society. Sayings such as, “If the sexual organ of the man rises up, a third of his religion is lost,” and, “If the male organ rises up, it is an overwhelming catastrophe for once provoked it cannot be resisted by either reason or religion,” reinforced the obligation of veiling and caging of women, all in the interest of the welfare of Muslim society.

Not surprisingly, stories of Houb Ozri (platonic love) punctuated Arab history, literature, and poetry (Keiss and Leila; Gamil and Bousseina). And themes of suffering for love, pleasure in pain of separation, and deprivation of one’s lover were expressed in song and verse. Hub (love) leaned towards an expressive masochistic tendency taking pleasure in pain.