PODCAST: Contextualizing the burkini/bikini debate

An example of the imagery circulating in mainstream media, depicting a woman in a burkini alongside a woman in a bikini.
An example of the imagery circulating in mainstream media, depicting a woman in a burkini alongside a woman in a bikini.

Just today media reported that a court in the French Mediterranean island of Corsica has upheld a burkini ban issued by a local mayor, despite the fact that a higher court recently ruled against the ban. The past couple of weeks have been rife with imagery positioning Western women in bikinis alongside Muslim women in burkinis, presenting what’s intended to be a vision of the liberated woman vs the oppressed woman. But surely there’s more to this conversation than women’s clothing? Surely it’s not as simple as bikini = freedom, burkini = oppression?

Natasha Bakht
Natasha Bakht

In this episode, I speak with Natasha Bakht about the burkini, veiling, and how banning burqas and burkinis impacts Muslim women more broadly. Later in the interview, we discuss the situation with Homa Hoodfar, a Canadian-Iranian scholar whose work has centered around Western perceptions of the veil and hijab, as well as on women’s rights in Muslim societies. Homa has been detained in Iran’s Evin Prison since June.

Natasha is an associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa. Her research interests are generally in the area of law, culture and minority rights and specifically in the intersecting area of religious freedom and women’s equality.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • melissa

    I’m sorry that all sounded very choice feminist to me… “Listen to the voices”,but very specific ones, just like you’re told in the pro-prostitution debate, not to mention the claims of “Ignorance”. As always its individualized to just a matter of personal choice/preference/identity. And apparently they can’t work, go or live their lives with it banned even though its just a matter of choice just like a tie.Surely working and living their lives wouldn’t be an issue at all if this was merely like the tie? if they could so easy to remove it when it inconveniences them?At-least for the bikini its just beach wear like swimming trunks for men, its not a permanent uniform you feel like you must put on very single day of your life, that you’re somehow “immodest” without.Women dont just wake up one day and think being in a bee keeprs suit 24/7 that segregates and simultaneously erases their visibility from the public sphere while making them stand out all that more, somehow makes them more “modest”. And Natashas right, this is a newer phenomenon that was much rarer in the previous generation. I believe Muslim feminists like Arsa Nomani and many others have talked about this ad nauseam.These are not the voice the we’re told to listen to…

    “For us, as mainstream Muslim women, born in Egypt and India, the spectacle at the mosque was a painful reminder of the well-financed effort by conservative Muslims to dominate modern Muslim societies. This modern-day movement spreads an ideology of political Islam, called “Islamism,” enlisting well-intentioned interfaith do-gooders and the media into promoting the idea that “hijab” is a virtual “sixth pillar” of Islam, after the traditional “five pillars” of the shahada (or proclamation of faith), prayer, fasting, charity and pilgrimage…”

    “…This modern-day movement, codified by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Taliban Afghanistan and the Islamic State, has erroneously made the Arabic word hijab synonymous with “headscarf.” This conflation of hijab with the secular word headscarf is misleading. “Hijab” literally means “curtain” in Arabic. It also means “hiding,” ”obstructing” and “isolating” someone or something. It is never used in the Koran to mean headscarf.”

    “Born in the 1960s into conservative but open-minded families (Hala in Egypt and Asra in India), we grew up without an edict that we had to cover our hair. But, starting in the 1980s, following the 1979 Iranian revolution of the minority Shiite sect and the rise of well-funded Saudi clerics from the majority Sunni sect, we have been bullied in an attempt to get us to cover our hair from men and boys. Women and girls, who are sometimes called “enforce-hers” and “Muslim mean girls,” take it a step further by even making fun of women whom they perceive as wearing the hijab inappropriately, referring to “hijabis” in skinny jeans as “ho-jabis,” using the indelicate term for “whores.” ”

    ” To us, the “hijab”is a symbol of an interpretation of Islam we reject that believes that women are a sexual distraction to men, who are weak, and thus must not be tempted by the sight of our hair. We don’t buy it. This ideology promotes a social attitude that absolves men of sexually harassing women and puts the onus on the victim to protect herself by covering up.”

    “In 1919, Egyptian women marched on the streets demanding the right to vote; they took off their veils, imported as a cultural tradition from the Ottoman Empire, not a religious edict. The veil then became a relic of the past.”

    “As women who grew up in modern Muslim families with theologians, we are trying to reclaim our religion from the prongs of a strict interpretation. Like in our youth, we are witnessing attempts to make this strict ideology the one and only accepted face of Islam. We have seen what the resurgence of political Islam has done to our regions of origin and to our adoptive country.”


    “The evolution of swimming costumes in Muslim societies has been linked to two main factors: the rise of political Islam and the urbanization of Muslim societies. Up until the Seventies in Egypt, female swimming costumes were widely accepted on public beaches without any harassment. That was due mainly to the predominance of the relatively liberal, middle-class elite in urban areas.

    That changed during the Eighties. Reverse engineering of cultural attitudes started with the rise of Islamism and the emergence of a neo-middle class, mostly conservative Muslims, many of whom were expats working in ultra-conservative Gulf States. This new culture embodied a strict new doctrine, which held that a woman’s body was a source of Islamist identity. As this new doctrine gained in popularity, social pressure mounted, forcing women to cover their bodies to maintain their “honor.” Any uncovered woman was deemed loose, decadent, and attention seeking. Such religious bullying forced many Muslim women to avoid swimming altogether, unless they had the means to join wealthy sport clubs or own a villa in exclusive compounds at posh sea resorts. As a result, the ghettoization of the Egyptian social scene became the new norm.”


    “After the transformative 60s, Muslim feminists resumed the fight for equality. European rule was over. It was time. The Moroccan academic Fatema Mernissi, Egypt’s Nawal El Saadawi and the Pakistani scholar Riffat Hassan all argued for female emancipation. They rightly saw the veil as a a tool and symbol of oppression and subservience. Mernissi’s Beyond the Veil ( 1975) is a classic text. So too El Saadawi’s The Hidden Face of Eve (1975). But more conservative Islamic tenets have taken over lands, communities, families, heads and hearts.”

    The promise of this version is a return to certainties and “purity” of belief, a mission backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Deobandi revivalists, funded by Arab money, now run more mosques in Britain than any other Muslim subgroup…”

    “All religions cast women as sinners and temptresses. Conservative Islam has revived the slander for our times…”

    “veils for me represent both religious arrogance and subjugation; they both desexualise and fervidly sexualise. Women are primarily seen as sexual creatures whose hair and bodies incite desire and disorder in the public space. The claim that veils protect women from lasciviousness and disrespect carries an element of self-deception. I have been at graduation ceremonies where shrouded female students have refused to shake the hand of the chancellor. Veiled women have provoked confrontations over their right to wear veils, in courts, at schools and in colleges and workplaces. But I regard their victories as a rejection of social compromise.”

    “…Little girls are being asked to don hijabs and jilbabs, turned into sexual beings long before puberty…”


    And of-course, none of this takes away from the objectification of women in the west. That’s a false dichotomy people set up to defend one extreme version over the other.

    • Morag999

      ‘I’m sorry that all sounded very choice feminist to me… “Listen to the voices”,but very specific ones, just like you’re told in the pro-prostitution debate”

      Yes. My thoughts exactly. This all sounds very much the same as the “listen to sex workers” argument in support of prostitution.

      Thanks for posting the voices of women who know that putting a curtain/veil between females and the world is an objectifying, misogynist, oppressive practice.

      Of course some women “choose” to be veiled, in the same way some women “choose” to be prostituted. And just as the choice rhetoric hurts women fighting to end prostitution, it also hurts women fighting to end veiling.

      • melissa

        Yup, normalizing women being private property is no better than normalizing women being public property. Men never have to live in these two Madonna/whore extremes. Like comparing obesity with anorexia. Surely we can create a healthier world for women that doesn’t involve putting this much emphasis on merely our bodies. What a shame the left seems to always be the first ones to welcome all forms of misogyny with open arms these days, either porn/prostitution/BDSM/ gender existentialist trans rhetoric or now as its seems religious misogyny. I’ve seem like 50 articles this month defending the burkini on progressive sites like ‘the guardian’ and various others, not only arguing against the ban(which i don’t disagree with them) but going on and on about how and why its so great for the women who “choose” this.

        *Sigh* i guess the quote “It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere” fits for everything that is Abrahamic religions and also lib feminism right now. So much hard earned gains and consciousness raised in society over the years being reversed, in the name of feminism at that. At this point I’m not even angry, just incredibly sad for everyone.

        • Rachel

          Yes, I completely agree with you both. We need to stop talking about women’s “choices” and how they empower them, and start talking about why they are even faced with these “choices” anyway. Women’s bodies are not some magnetic sexual field that men are innately and automatically drawn to. It’s ridiculous! You’re right, men don’t have to make these choices because their bodies aren’t sexualised property. It people started to see sex for what it is, as in, between two actual consenting people and based on more than just a body with holes to use, then we wouldn’t be equating women’s bodies to sex. I hate how women’s bodies are automatically associated with sex. Last time I checked, humans were complex beings with many senses and the ability to connect with other humans on deeper levels which can then result in Sex. The more I see though, the more convinced I am that most people rally are just brainless.

          • Karen Eisen

            while I support the ban on these garments in Canada, I felt there was vast difference in the last federal election (2015) between NDP’s Mulcair: don’t punish the victims vs. Trudeau’s: women choose to wear these garments. It makes all the difference in the world. I also support Bill C-36 (the anti-prostitution bill), and was proud when Canada drafted it. Yes, there needs more funding for drug treatment and housing and counselling, but it is a start.

      • Karen Eisen

        in the Canadian election, there was a sharp difference in Mulcair’s: don’t punish the victim vs. Trudeau’s: some women choose to wear the garments…. the outcome might be the same (not making the garments illegal) but it makes all the difference in the world….

  • anne cameron

    Oh, sure, obfuscate and talk talk talk but don’t look too closely at the fact that on BOTH sides, even ALL sides of this manufactured ‘debate’ it’s still men deciding what women will wear. Interesting there’s no move on the part of these concerned males to ban high-heeled shoes in spite of solid evidence the damned things negatively impact the pelvis and wreck the spine!
    And all the other yammer-yammer on all sides of this non-question is just bumph.

  • k.f. morton

    I agree that much of the debate over the burkini has been ridiculous, and of course, the bikini and the burkini represent two sides of the same coin. But it is also important to acknowledge that the ideals of female modesty underpinning the burkini arise from a patriarchal context in which female sexuality is policed and abused. The solution is not to react with more policing through banning the burkini, but I cannot see the burkini as a legitimate expression of female agency, any more than are make up or stilettos. Natasha Bakht did sound very “choice feminismy”.

  • morrison

    The burkini debate and the faux “choice” arguments obscure a larger truth: the burkini, hijab, burka, etc ARE the sexist artifacts of a patriarchal religion. These objects are both the symbols of women’s oppression AND the tools of the oppression. Millions of women around the world TODAY cannot remove these “modesty” garments under threat of flogging and imprisonment. These facts matter. This context is important.

    And let’s be clear: wrapping this issue in the cloak of “religious freedom” doesn’t make it acceptable. Religions can no longer be given a free pass when it comes to oppression. Today, religions all around the world are THE major source of women’s oppression. Religion IS the final frontier of sexist, patriarchal oppression. It IS the battle feminists need to come together to fight.

    But feminists have been nearly silent on the subject of religious sexism and women’s oppression. Feminists who speak out against religious sexism are labeled bigots, culturally insensitive, cultural imperialists, etc. Women who spoke out in support of the burkini ban were labeled Islamaphobes. This is just another attempt to silence feminist criticism. Why on earth should feminists respect ANY religion that oppresses women? How ridiculous to demand that feminists should be “culturally sensitive” to patriarchy!

    And when it comes to French secularism, well-meaning liberal feminists suggest that the French model doesn’t respect “freedom of religion.” But Western secularism is “freedom OF religion,” French secularism is “freedom FROM religion.” And this is crucial, because today “freedom OF religion” enables oppression, while “freedom FROM religion” shields from oppression. If you don’t see the logic of that statement consider how porous Western secularism has become to the demands of religions.

    In the past two decades nearly all the “religious freedom” cases that have come before the US Supreme Court, have actually been seeking the religious freedom to discriminate (mostly against women, but also against gays and transgendered people). Freedom OF Religion has come to mean “freedom to enshrine sexual inequality.” And alarmingly, more and more, these arguments have been accepted by our courts. The right of religions to discriminate against women has become normalized.

    Pick any orthodox religion and you’ll find shocking sexual inequality that is either ignored or accepted by our liberal society. Ghettos of female oppression are openly accepted in our would-be liberal communities – celebrated, in fact, as multiculturalism. But multiculturalism without sexual equality is just more oppression. And worse, it turns the feminists who embrace it into oppression tourists.

    Today, the single greatest threat to women’s equality exists in the form of patriarchal sexist religious orthodoxies. “Freedom of Religion” is just a Trojan Horse of patriarchy. Ask yourself: Why should ANY religion be given more freedom than a WOMAN? Why?

    • libkid08

      I think this comment is absolutely brilliant. I couldn’t agree more, in fact. I am so sick to death of being told that the evil, privileged western women have no right to critique the poor, defenseless Muslim men in their treatment of and theories about women. The fact their religion may be a minority in our country does not mean it is pitiful and to think so is narcissistic. I am vehemently opposed to any and all religious oppression. End of. Silencing women from speaking out in favor of women is simply a way to remain abusive and misogynistic.

  • libkid08

    I understand but I also know that France is a much better place for women to live than many middle eastern countries. Hence…the migration into France. So while patriarchy permeates all society, fighting the French culture should be done separately from the fight against religious culture. After all on the gradient… France is headed in a better direction remaining secular than the many folks entering the country demanding change based on religious beliefs. Many French women do cherish their culture and want to protect it in general while also making it better for women. Know what I mean?