OK, I made that up. I don’t have a Bnei Brakini or any other kind of bikini for that matter. But I was close up and personal with many of the former and a few of the latter on a Tel Aviv beach earlier this week.

Earlier this summer, a beloved niece and I made plans to spend a day at the beach with her two daughters before they returned to Gan, kindergarten. At that point, I’d never heard of a burkini, and had no idea that we’d find ourselves close to the eye of an international political storm that has blown up in the meantime — Burkinigate!

Atara is one of my husband’s brother’s nine daughters (and one son). Her husband is learning full-time in kollel, and they live with their two daughters in Jerusalem’s mainly Anglo-Haredi, ultra-Orthodox, neighborhood of Ramat Eshkol.

Though only 2- and 3-years-old, Atara’s daughters Chana and Rivka-Leah are extremely observant. I’m talking about what they notice in the world around them, not their personal religiosity. As I thought through the prospect of spending time with them on a regular Tel Aviv beach, I realized there could be questions we’d find hard to answer. So I suggested that we simplify our lives and go to a religious beach.

Tel Aviv’s religious beach is known variously as Hof Sheraton (because the Sheraton Hotel was once next to it, though it’s long since migrated along the coast towards Jaffa), Hof Nordau, Hof Ha’Datim (the religious beach), the Separate Beach, and (ironically!) Hof Metzitzim, ‘Peeping Tom Beach’ (after a 1970s Israeli comedy). The multitude of names turned out to be a sign of things to come.

Reading up about it in advance — this was my first visit — I discovered that the religious beach is next to the gay beach. I feared that our day-trip would raise a wholly different set of questions, but I shouldn’t have worried. Thanks to the natural contours of the coastline and a fence of solid wooden panels, it was almost impossible to see or be seen by anyone else once you hit the sand.

What makes a Tel Aviv beach religious? It faces east and prays three times a day. That was a joke. What makes this beach religious is gender separation — there are different days of the week for men and women. I assume there’s an official or generally agreed cut-off age for boys accompanying their mothers or girls their fathers, but I don’t know what it is. The oldest boy I saw looked about 8; he was wearing shorts and a black velvet kippah and had beautiful peyot.

There are no clothing restrictions on the religious beach. Alongside women covered from head to foot were a handful of women in small bikinis. Indeed, the author of a blog I came across while figuring out what to wear myself (I settled on a fast-drying, thin cotton dress) said that it was her beach of choice if she wanted to sunbathe topless. Given what can happen to women in short sleeves or jeans who walk through Jerusalem’s Haredi neighborhood of Meah Shearim (at best, they are asked to cover up or leave, at worst, they are targets of verbal abuse, spitting and stone-throwing), it seemed implausible that she was totally ignored, as she claimed. But once I got there, I understood. On the beach, as opposed to the street, anything goes — even a glimpse of stocking, if that term can be applied to the 100% opaque, Satmar rebbe-approved, well-over-the-knee waterproof socks that some women wore.

It’s not exactly true that there are no men on the beach; a tall and substantial wooden tower is manned by male lifeguards. Their presence can easily be justified by the halakhic principle of pekuach nefesh — the priority of  saving a life above almost all else. In Jewish legal terms, then, male lifeguards barely count as men, and indeed no-one paid much attention to them or to their stream of megaphoned warnings to the swimmers and bobbers.

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Speaking of megaphones, the last beach I visited this summer was Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, next to Coney Island. After a couple of hours on the sands, the classy Latin jazz selections on the music system of the Hispanic extended family sitting next to us were drowned out by the sounds of two motorized police sand buggies, a helicopter and a couple of lifeboats. Within minutes the beach was transformed into a set for Miami Vice (I know that because I once saw a Miami Vice set at Universal Studios in LA). My son Jonah, who’s been doing anthropological fieldwork in Freetown, said later that this was what Sierra-Leoneans imagine America is always like.

News traveled by word-of-mouth among the Brighton Beach sunbathers that a little boy had gone missing. Why, I wondered aloud, didn’t the coastguards add a $50 megaphone to their arsenal of emergency rescue equipment? Judging by the collective anxiety, not to mention the prayers of gratitude when the missing boy was found behind someone’s deckchair, an army of dedicated searchers awaited mobilization. I thought about this episode when I heard a loud-speakered plea for Imma shel Esti, Esti’s Mum, to reunite with her daughter at the lifeguard station. Another world.

A big difference between Brighton Beach and Tel Aviv’s religious beach concerns boundaries. At Brighton Beach, family groups were clearly demarcated. Many set up wind-breakers that established the borders of their territory, and chairs typically circled wagon-like around a drinks cooler. The above-mentioned Hispanic family even hoisted a small flag from their country of origin! The family compound feeling at Brighton Beach was underscored by gender roles, with men in charge of music, barbecues and beer, and women soft drinks and snacks.

On the Tel Aviv beach, by contrast, there were no obvious boundaries. Family groups dissolved into one other, kids gravitated to kids in other families, and buckets and spades quickly became communal property, not least because so many had been abandoned in the sand by mothers who had enough trouble gathering up their children at the end of the day, let alone their beach toys.

In some cases, especially among Ashkenazim, a specific group was distinguishable by their clothing — all adult women with head-covering, baggy dresses and water stockings, for example. But I imagine that even these groups exhibited subtle dress code differences I couldn’t decipher. This woman’s red turban — the only one I saw on the beach  — surely signified something.

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But many groups were obviously mixed in terms of dress. The four-generation Sephardi family sitting next to us included a grandmother and a sprinkling of daughters and granddaughters who were mainly covered up, and others in regular bathing suits. Most of the great-granddaughters in the group wore long T-shirts over their swimming costumes.

Some people can’t believe that a 21st century woman could choose of her accord to sit on hot sand and swim in the sea fully clothed, which is one reason why they see burkinis and their equivalents as evidence of male oppression. But free will is complex. I doubt there’s a single woman on any beach — or for that matter street — in the world who’s truly autonomous when it comes to dress. Sure, some women have a great deal more freedom of choice than others. But every one of us is influenced to some extent by the social and cultural expectations of our own communities, the norms of others around us, peer pressure, what’s available in stores, what we can afford to buy, local assumptions about age and status, the desire to rebel or conform, and so forth.

Even in countries such as Iran, where there’s a very high degree of coercion when it comes to women’s dress; where top-down changes were instituted quickly and comprehensively; where many women cover up against their will; and where clothing is a vehicle for oppression and gender discrimination, most women would not simply opt out, even if they could. There are too many factors at play, and too many costs and consequences. All the more so in religious communities, Jewish and Muslim, where dress codes are not enforced by the state but emerge internally, inextricably bound with notions of identity and belonging.

With her characteristically sharp wit and powers of observation, George Eliot mapped out brilliantly the interplay of modesty, vanity, religious and cultural norms, economic concerns and half-concealed social codes with regard to women’s dress in 19th century rural England. Here she is describing the orphaned sisters Dorothea and Cecilia in the opening chapter of Middlemarch:

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible, – or from one of our elder poets, – in a paragraph of to-day’s newspaper. She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common-sense. Nevertheless, Celia wore scarcely more trimmings; and it was only to close observers that her dress differed from her sister’s, and had a shade of coquetry in its arrangements; for Miss Brooke’s plain dressing was due to mixed conditions, in most of which her sister shared. The pride of being ladies had something to do with it: the Brooke connections, though not exactly aristocratic, were unquestionably “good:” if you inquired backward for a generation or two, you would not find any yard-measuring or parcel-tying forefathers – anything lower than an admiral or a clergyman; and there was even an ancestor discernible as a Puritan gentleman who served under Cromwell, but afterwards conformed, and managed to come out of all political troubles as the proprietor of a respectable family estate. Young women of such birth, living in a quiet country-house, and attending a village church hardly larger than a parlor, naturally regarded frippery as the ambition of a huckster’s daughter. Then there was well-bred economy, which in those days made show in dress the first item to be deducted from, when any margin was required for expenses more distinctive of rank. Such reasons would have been enough to account for plain dress, quite apart from religious feeling; but in Miss Brooke’s case, religion alone would have determined it; and Celia mildly acquiesced in all her sister’s sentiments, only infusing them with that common-sense which is able to accept momentous doctrines without any eccentric agitation. Dorothea knew many passages of Pascal’s Pensees and of Jeremy Taylor by heart; and to her the destinies of mankind, seen by the light of Christianity, made the solicitudes of feminine fashion appear an occupation for Bedlam. She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual life involving eternal consequences, with a keen interest in gimp and artificial protrusions of drapery.

When it comes to the evolving expectations and regulations of their own communities, women are rarely totally without agency in terms of the clothes they put on each morning. The situation is entirely different when it comes to external rules and regulations — such as those enforced recently by French policemen on a beach in Nice — requiring women to remove the clothes they put on that morning. The French police may think they’re liberating women oppressed by patriarchal regimes when they force them to take off their burkinis. But in fact they’re enacting the age-old practice of substituting women’s bodies for the territory that, in times past, they would have conquered and colonized. As the French and other formerly imperial powers should know all too well by now, no good — for anyone — can ever come of that.