If there was a buzzword from last summer then it was surely ‘burkini’. The media got its swimsuit in a twist over France’s decision to ban the Islamic garment from its beaches. Slow-witted Anglophone columnists – many of whom have a curious predilection for insulting the French – lapped it up and enthusiastically portrayed Islam as the victim of Gallic oppression.
Those trusty custodians of liberal values, the Guardian and the New York Times, got particularly worked up, the former declaring in an editorial that ‘women’s right to dress as they feel comfortable and fitting should be defended against those coercing them into either covering or uncovering.’ The New York Times quoted Marwan Muhammad, executive director of the Collective Against Islamophobia (an organisation which Gilles Kepel, France’s foremost expert on Islamism, has claimed is intended to create a ‘strategy of conquest’ within France). He said the appearance of the burkini was ‘good news’. ‘It means Muslim women who didn’t use to enjoy that day at the beach or at the pool are now taking part, they are socialising.’
The editorials whipped up public opinion to such a degree than an impromptu beach party was held outside the French embassy in London to celebrate the right of women to wear what they want. One protester, Esmat Jeraj, told the Guardian that ‘if the burkini enables women to go and sit on the beach and enjoy the sunshine, surely that should be encouraged. It helps ensure these women are no longer on the margins.’ India Thorogood said she had organised the protest to ‘send a message of solidarity’ to Muslim women, adding that demonstrating against the ban ‘matters because it’s an opportunity for men to tell women what to do and it’s an example of Islamophobia, which is becoming more and more prevalent in our society.’
One wonders if Thorogood and Jeraj will show similar support this August for a small group of Algerian women who are campaigning for the right to wear what they want on the beach. So far the Anglophone press have failed to champion their cause, leaving the French media to shine a spotlight on the brave band of women determined to wear their bikinis.
Women like Sara, a 27-year-old Algerian feminist who comes from Annaba in the north east of the country. Sara isn’t the woman’s real name. Wisely, she doesn’t wish to draw too much attention to herself so in the only interview she’s given, to Algerian newspaper Le Provincial, she went by the pseudonym and explained why she launched the movement in June. Having gone to the beach with her family the day after Ramadan ended, Sara was dismayed to discover she was the only woman present. Not having the courage to strip down to her bikini, she returned home and created a Facebook page calling on Algerian women to take to the beach in a bikini. ‘The goal isn’t to whip up a storm or create a buzz, but to change, profoundly and gently, society,’ explained Sara. ‘We don’t wish to change people’s vision of things but simply to teach tolerance and the acceptance of others.’
Earlier this month, Sara organised ‘Operation Swimsuit’, an outing to the seaside for her supporters. Fearful of possible reactions she selected an isolated beach 60 miles from Annaba. Forty women showed up. Three days later there was another rendezvous. This time 200 participated, one of whom was a young biochemist called Rym. ‘We have the right to put on what we want, to go where we want and when we want,’ she said. ‘We’re not just there to stay at home.’ Another woman, who gave her name as Samia, said: ‘As soon as we wear a bikini, we feel assaulted, visually and verbally. The idea is to have the power to the go to the beach without feeling uneasy.’
Sara’s movement now has over 3,000 members, and she organises two trips to the beach a week, but hostility is growing in Algeria. Among the many negative messages posted on social media sites was one from a woman who declared ‘I bathe in my hijab, I leave nudity to the animals’. Other women opposed to the bikini have called on their menfolk to photograph anyone they see in one and then post the pictures online with the aim of having them identified.
Not all Algerian men are disgusted by the bikini. One, the brother of a women in Sara’s movement, described his sister and her friends as ‘heroic’; nonetheless, he added: ‘I leave you to imagine what these women are risking for a bikini…I’m scared that Lilia and the other women will be physically attacked because here women are seen as pieces of meat.’
To date, the assaults have been conducted only online and among some of the more printable comments left on the women’s Facebook page were ‘Loose women’ and ‘Where are your fathers?’ To which Rym retorts: ‘These frustrated men will not stop us going to the beach.’
Rym sounds a courageous and spirited young woman, just the sort the Western Sisterhood should be supporting to ensure she is ‘no longer on the margins’. But where these swimmers are concerned, the silence is deafening.