“The person who invented the burkini did it to free women!” says someone I know, every five minutes on Facebook or Twitter. But I do not feel free when I wear it myself. I am hot, I can’t hear, and I’ve been rubbed sore by a cross-shaped seam on the crotch.
I am sitting on the river bank at the genteel Hampstead Ponds in London, the first of two destinations where I’ll see what reaction I get from the public when I appear in a burkini. The second is Clacton-on-Sea, home of UKIP’s only MP.
The temperature in Hampstead is in the mid-twenties and I would like to be wearing loose, white linen, with a wide brimmed hat for shade. Instead, I’m enshrouded in tight, black, synthetic fabric, that encases my head, but does nothing to keep the sun off my face.
Everyone around me is in summer clothes and swimwear. They are politely pretending not to notice me, but I blend in about as well as Marilyn Manson in a children’s play area. I am happiest hidden in the water. It brings my temperature below boiling point and I’m no longer in danger of hallucinating. However, when I get out, my water logged head-encasement means I’m isolated from the sound around me. The silently moving faces are like a scene that might have been painted by Edvard Munch.
The frenetically-quoted burkini inventor, Aheda Zanetti, claims 40% of her customers are non-Muslim. She says it’s popular with women who want to protect their skin from the sun, and women who feel self-conscious in a bikini.
Nigella Lawson’s name tends to be rolled out at this point, since she was pictured in a burkini on a beach in Australia. Charles Saatchi, to whom she was married at the time, was later pictured with his hand round her throat, and post-split, it’s been claimed that Lawson wore the burkini because Saatchi wanted her to stay white. I’d wager then, that Lawson didn’t actively choose to wear one and I find it difficult to imagine that any woman would want to, having spent an afternoon in one myself.
On the bank holiday weekend, I give my albatross its second outing, taking the train to Clacton, where St. George’s flags line the seafront like bunting. I change in a public toilet by the beach, and as I put my rucksack back on, I hesitate to leave the cubicle. I look like a suicide bomber, don’t I? My friend, who fears I’ll actually be assaulted, insists on taking my bag for duration of the day.
To steel ourselves for the anticipated hostility, my friend and I buy some beers from a pub overlooking the seafront and the barman doesn’t bat an eyelid. As we walk down the beach, with the beers in plastic cups, a woman shouts something. Okay, so this is it, I think. The inevitable racist abuse from some swivel-eyed Brexit voter. I strain to hear, because I’m effectively wearing ear-muffs, but it’s not what I’m expecting. Turns out, she wants to know where we got our beers. We sit down and someone else calls out, but my burkini is not the attraction this time either – a girl is after a roll-up. She sees my friend taking photos of me. She tells me I look beautiful. Clacton-on-Sea turns out to be no less welcoming towards a burkini-clad woman than Hampstead Heath.
After drinking my beer, and reading a well-thumbed Jilly Cooper, I go for a splash in the sea. When I come out, I am freezing as the fabric doesn’t dry in the sun. If the breeze could get to my skin I’d be OK, but the soaking wet fabric is stuck to me. We go for a walk along the pier and this is when I get relentless crotch-rub. With every step, the wet seams between my legs make me wince.
On the train down, my self-described argumentative-lefty friend echoes Zanetti when he says the burkini allows Muslim women freedom to go to the beach. I point out that they can go anyway. “But they have to cover up,” he says. No, they don’t.
Zanetti describes her burkinis as “modest,” implying that in contrast, Western swimwear is the mark of a wanton harlot (as if this is a bad thing). Maryam Namazie, a human rights activist, who’s on the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, says this is exactly the message sent to coerce Muslim women into covering up. She illustrates her point with a picture of a billboard in Iran, that likens uncovered women to unwrapped sweets, circled by flies.
While I’d harboured secret fantasises about being forced to strip by a fit lifeguard who sounded like Serge Gainsbourg, I was cheered to find Clacton so friendly. My argumentative-lefty friend was heartened to discover that a town known as Brexit-on-Sea was actually as tolerant as a liberal London borough.
Petitions to overturn the burkini ban call it a breach of human rights, but I feel sorry for French officials, who’ve been unfairly cast as the bad guys. It’s not the burkini ban that’s barring Muslim women from the beach – it’s the rhetoric that without it, they will be fair game for unwanted attention – like unwrapped sweets, circled by flies.
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