Melanie Takefman
Melanie Takefman

Don’t rush to embrace the burkini

Men and women of all stripes and backgrounds have condemned the French burkini ban. It’s true: women should dress as they please.

But before we run to embrace the burkini, let’s not forget why it exists.

Men are responsible for the burka, head coverings and the bikini. Men have been dictating to women how to dress since the beginning of time. Women cover up and bare it all because of men.  Whether women are truly able to dress as they please today, with centuries of patriarchal molds behind them, is the true question. The French case is but the tip of the iceberg.

Even though a French court cancelled the inane ban, this is an important and symbolic issue that will not disappear soon.

In Israel, religious and societal precepts have long encouraged women to dress in a certain way. “Modesty” is a means for men to control women. To discuss how and why is too broad for this forum, but the male motives behind it are clear, whether it’s to curb their sexual temptations, to inform others that their wives are unavailable or a number of other variations. The burka is an extreme incarnation of this mechanism.

As has been widely noted, Jewish and Muslim women in Israel wear all sorts of clothes to the beach, to the mall, and to work. They do this alongside women in exceptionally revealing clothes; our beaches, thus, have always embodied what France is experiencing now.

Yet, when women dress skimpily, it is also a submission to male paradigms. In doing so, they subscribe to male-defined beauty ideals and the notion that women are sexual objects, existing solely for their pleasure.  Sadly, because men rule the world (for now), this is a role women are taught to play from a young age. This is why generations of starlets have had to reveal themselves to launch their careers.

Let me be clear: women can wear whatever makes them comfortable, whether it is a burka or a thong. Some like to flaunt their bodies because it genuinely makes them feel good, while others cover up as a political statement. There is no right or wrong.

Yet, while we condemn the burkini ban and encourage women to dress as they please, we must acknowledge that women are still living – and dressing – largely according to male dictates.

The burkini brouhaha is one small chapter in a history of male domination of women through dress. Only when women start making the rules themselves will they truly be able to dress as they please.

About the Author
Born in Canada and living in Israel since 2003, Melanie Takefman writes about life in Israel, herstory and cross-cultural identity. She is currently working on a book about women and migration.