WHEN the audacious two-piece swimming suit known as the bikini hit the world’s beaches in the 1950s, its revealing nature provoked a great deal of consternation. The Vatican declared it sinful and the bikini was banned in Spain, Italy and Australia. Needless to say it never quite took off in Saudi Arabia.
Few then would have anticipated that, more than half a century later, it would be the burkini – a female beach garb designed to cover the entire body in the name of protecting a woman’s modesty – that would be the subject of scandal.
This isn’t due to an inherent issue with the burkini itself. After all there was no outrage when TV chef Nigella Lawson debuted hers in 2011 as a way of protecting her skin, or over its use by Australian lifeguards, or orthodox Jews.
The problem is what it represents, which, to its critics, is the repression of women by an intolerant religious creed, a vision which has no place infiltrating European beaches and water-parks, and is symbolic of a perceived expanding Muslim influence at a time when Europe is under attack from radical Islam.
Following the decision by several French beach resorts to ban the burkini – which leaves only the face, hands and feet uncovered – Spain has now waded into the sensitive cultural debate, with a Girona water park issuing a ban on the garb for safety reasons.
The ban puts the water park’s administration at odds with the Barcelona government, which has categorically said it will put no such ban in place, with deputy mayor Gerardo Pisarello arguing that women should have the right to dress as they please.
That general principle has been followed in Aqualandia, a Costa Blanca water park, which has announced it has no problem whatsoever with the burkini, so long as it is made from fabric suitable for water, such as lycra or neoprene, and wearers stay clear of certain extreme slides.
Spain is fortunate in that the country doesn’t suffer from the same integration issues that plague France and which have forced that nation to take drastic measures to protect its identity and, in the absence of an identifiable military target, to take some ‘action’ against ever more horrific acts of terrorism.
Nice became the largest city yet to issue a blanket burkini ban with new legislation in the southern French city referring to the horrendous Bastille Day attack, forbidding clothing that “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks.”
France has been a strong defender of its secular heritage and banned face coverings in a bid to combat extremism. The decision was hugely controversial and split France’s Muslim community, many of whom are against fundamentalist clothing but believe women should have the right to express themselves.
Now a wealthy Tunisian businessman known as the ‘Zorro of the niqab’ has volunteered to pay any fines incurred by burkini wearing women as he challenges the might of the French state, and, worryingly, the cultural controversy looks set to see more citizens take matters into their own hands.
In Corsica last week the socialist mayor of Sisco was forced to ban the burkini in order to ‘protect the population’ after riot police had to fend off hundreds of angry natives marching on a predominantly North African housing estate shouting ‘this is our home.’
Earlier there had been violent clashes at a local beach after some youths took photos of a Muslim woman in her burkini, leading to violent reprisals from a large group of Arab men. Corsica’s largely defunct National Liberation Front has now seized on the ethnic tension to regain relevance.
And herein lies the real danger. This burkini controversy has the potential to act as a catalyst for further violence and social strain as anti-immigrant groups see in it a new rallying call for action, while pressure from the state and ‘native’ population could alienate Muslims even further.
Spain has fortunately been spared the brunt of these developments and indeed the whole immigration debacle in general. Which is why Barcelona and Benidorm appear completely at ease with the Burkini, and able to accept it as just another one of humanity’s curious disguises.
But, as history tells us, all it takes is one unfortunate incident or misunderstanding and then, suddenly, everything changes…