Swimming pools in the US have a sordid history with racism. As one history professor puts it, they have "long been contested spaces where Americans express social prejudices that otherwise remain publicly unspoken." And despite France's ruling against burkini bans, swimming pools have reportedly become a backdrop for incidents of discrimination against Muslim women in Europe.
According to the Independent, a woman says she was recently humiliated while on vacation near Marseille in the south of France because she wore a burkini—which is designed specifically for swimming—to the private pool at the residence she was renting. As she entered the water, a staff member allegedly asked other swimmers to exit the pool. Later, she says the owner called the woman's husband and asked him to bar her from swimming during the rest of their trip. The owner also reportedly told the couple they'd be responsible for the costs incurred for the pool being emptied and closed for two days for cleaning, which totaled 490 euros ($576).
"I was stunned because no one stopped me or said anything at all," the woman told United Against Islamophobia in France. "I was disappointed, shocked, wounded by the fact that someone could be so hypocritical and wicked because of a burkini."
Two British women recently reported being similarly targeted for wearing burkinis while on vacation in Portugal. The sisters-in-law rented a private residence, and tried to go for a swim in the complex's pool. Maryya Dean, a 36-year-old mother, told Mirror that she was approached by a maintenance worker because someone had reportedly complained about them being dressed inappropriately for swimming. She said he told her that "Portuguese people wear bikinis and so should we," and used her nine-year-old daughter's traditional swimsuit as an example of proper attire.
"We told him we didn't wear bikinis because we weren't comfortable in them," Dean said. "It was a confidence thing. But he kept repeating 'you have to wear a bikini'. We were feeling really humiliated."
As they exited the swimming pool, Dean recalled, "people were watching us like we'd committed a crime. I keep thinking about it. We had to do a 'walk of shame' back to the apartment. It was disgusting."
Last year, several French towns banned women from wearing burkinis on public beaches. Even though those bans were ultimately determined to be illegal by the country's highest administrative courts, that hasn't stopped one mayor from instituting rules that prohibit "monokinis, burkinis, [and] veils that partially or totally conceal the face" at a local water park that opened in June.
According to a report from the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), Muslim women are more likely to be victims of hate crime and speech than Muslim men, especially if they wear anything signaling their religious beliefs, such as a headscarf. The attitudes around burkini bans "are symptomatic of the very real and disproportionate impact of Islamophobia on Muslim women," wrote ENAR director Michael Privot. "Discrimination and violence are a daily reality for Muslim women, not only in France but across Europe."
"As we saw in the case of various burkini bans in Europe last summer, the issue of fining women who choose to don the burkini commonly stems from deeply rooted Islamophobic ideas which introduce the burkini—and the Islamic veil more generally—as a universal symbol of oppression, terrorism and otherness."
Pina Sadar is a member of the anthropology department at Durham University in the UK whose research has focused on Islamic veiling, burqa bans, and women and Islam. "The idea of sanctioning a woman for simply wearing a modest version of a swimsuit is absolutely appalling," she tells Broadly. "As we saw in the case of various burkini bans in Europe last summer, the issue of fining women who choose to don the burkini commonly stems from deeply rooted Islamophobic ideas which introduce the burkini—and the Islamic veil more generally—as a universal symbol of oppression, terrorism and otherness. The idea of labeling it as dirty is a good, yet extremely depressing, illustration of the unwanted otherness that it represents to some."
Sadar says that in her research, she's come across a number of women who choose to don a burkini simply because it's practical, and that too often, media responses and political discussions paint the swimwear as being forced upon women by their culture or their husbands. "Such lazy and racially-charged media narratives feed into the centuries-old colonial stereotypes of Muslim women as voiceless victims of oppressive regimes and patriarchy."
"Ultimately," Sadar continues, "the public needs to acknowledge that woman's freedom comes in different shapes and forms, and women's clothes are inevitably a reflection of that."