Israel’s ‘modest’ swimmers wade into burkini controversy
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Israel’s ‘modest’ swimmers wade into burkini controversy

Both Israeli Arabs and Jews insist full-body swimwear isn’t just for religious women, and government has no place making fashion decrees

A woman wearing a burkini joins a demonstration outside the French Embassy in London on August 25, 2016, during a 'Wear what you want beach party' to protest the ban on the swimwear on French beaches, and to show solidarity with Muslim women. (AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS)
A woman wearing a burkini joins a demonstration outside the French Embassy in London on August 25, 2016, during a 'Wear what you want beach party' to protest the ban on the swimwear on French beaches, and to show solidarity with Muslim women. (AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS)

Burkinis may be a contentious issue on French beaches following an attempt in 30 coastal towns to ban the full-cover “Islamic” bathing suit last week, but modest bathing suits for both Jewish and Arab women barely make a splash at Israel’s beaches and pools.

“Clearly they have no right to ban the burkini, they have no right to tell women what to wear on the streets or at the beach,” said Marci Rapp, a Jewish woman in Jerusalem who founded a swimwear company called MarSea Modest. “Modesty should never be restricted, it’s a woman’s choice.”

“I often get customers saying, ‘I’m not that religious,’ but they want to buy modest swimwear,” Rapp added. “I say, I don’t judge, women can cover up whatever they want.”

Rapp said modest swimwear, which can include a variety of styles of long- or short-sleeved tops, dresses, shorts, skirts, and pants, is useful not just for religious women, but for women concerned about skin cancer, or plus-size women who don’t feel comfortable in traditional bathing suits. She also has a number of customers who are cancer survivors, who are looking for swimwear that has a stylish, water-friendly head covering during their chemotherapy, covers surgery scars, or works with a breast prosthesis.

HydroChic sells a variety of swimdresses, tops and bottoms (Courtesy of HydroChic)
HydroChic sells a variety of swimdresses, tops and bottoms (Courtesy of HydroChic)

Daniella Teutsch, co-founder of another Israel-based modest swimwear line called HydroChic, estimates that 50-60% of her customers are plus-size women who are not necessarily religious. Her online customers in the US include Jewish, Christian, and some Muslim women.

“It’s all about choice, it’s about comfort level,” said Teutsch, who noted that “modest” fashion, including swimwear, has become trendy recently.

“We get positive testimonials from people who say it’s changed their life,” she said. “Women are doing more sports that they weren’t doing before, like water skiing, canoeing, skydiving, scuba diving, anything and everything. You just have so many different types of people who are out and enjoying water. The biggest thing is that we hear people haven’t been to the beach in years and now they are going.”

In Israel, the modest swimwear, which can cost NIS 300 to 400 for the full outfit, is marketed to a largely Jewish clientele. Arab and ultra-Orthodox women have traditionally worn their regular clothes to go swimming, though this is changing, especially among ultra-Orthodox women, as modest swimsuits become more mainstream.

Arab women who want to purchase a special outfit for swimming largely gravitate towards a polyester pants/shirt/dress combo, explained Isan, the owner of a women’s clothing shop in the Old City of Jerusalem. Isan, who declined to give his last name, noted that, like religious Jewish women, there is a wide spectrum of what conservative Muslim women feel comfortable with in terms of swimwear.

Young Palestinian women from the West Bank town of Bethlehem play on the beach in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Young Palestinian women from the West Bank town of Bethlehem play on the beach in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The most religious women opt for women-only hours at pools and beaches so they may not utilize modest swimwear at all, he said. Others may prefer wetsuits, some women just wear their regular clothes, while others want something lightweight and loose for going to the beach with their children. Isam sells a variety of synthetic pants and shirts which cost about NIS 50 each, or NIS 100 for a dress made of the same material.

A dress suitable for swimming, which is becoming more popular with religious Muslim women who want things to wear to the beach, in the Old City of Jerusalem on August 28, 2016. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
A dress suitable for swimming, which is becoming more popular with religious Muslim women who want things to wear to the beach, in the Old City of Jerusalem on August 28, 2016. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Both Jews and Arabs disagreed with the idea of a government ban on a certain type of dress. “Faith is an interior thing, if you believe it, then it is yours,” said Mahmoud, who was working at the clothing store. Mahmoud wanted to know if the French government had considered specifics: what about Catholic nuns, who wear a veil and habit? Will they have to remove it when they go to the beach?

“If you make this the law, in just five or six years there will be a religious war, there may be a man who will instigate people by saying, ‘They’re taking my sisters’ dress!’” Mahmoud said.

“The burkini isn’t necessarily Islamic,” added Isan. What’s Islamic, he explained, is the concept of modesty — wearing clothes that aren’t revealing, transparent, or tight.

Manal Shalabi, a feminist activist and social work researcher who is a PhD fellow at Haifa University, noted that there is a decades long discussion about whether “Islamic dress” like hijabs, or modest swimwear, is liberating or oppressing Muslim women, echoing similar discussions in the Jewish world over extra-modest dress or the use of head-coverings and wigs for married women.

She said that as a secular Muslim feminist, the episode in France also reminded her of the opposite extreme in Saudi Arabia, where there is a legal dress code which requires Muslim women to wear the “abaya,” a full-body covering.

Women join a demonstration organised by "Stand up to Racism" outside the French Embassy in London on August 26, 2016 against the Burkini ban on French beaches. (AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS)
Women join a demonstration organised by “Stand up to Racism” outside the French Embassy in London on August 26, 2016 against the Burkini ban on French beaches. (AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS)

“As a feminist I can be against the burkini, because I don’t like how it limits women, but also condemn this specific situation of forcing a woman to take it off,” said Shalabi.

“This is an issue of when they asked the woman to take off her clothes, they’re trying to control her life when she’s not even endangering anyone,” she said. “She’s just sitting on the beach, not entering into anyone’s personal space. That really is damaging to the human rights of this person.”

Shalabi added that France’s struggle with terrorism and political, extremist Islam has veered into trying to control religious Islam, directly targeting vulnerable groups, such as immigrants.

“The worry of terrorism in the population is an issue that France is facing, but this isn’t the way to go about it,” said Teutsch, of HydroChic. “I don’t think wearing a burkini is going to undermine the security of the French government.”

“I don’t think wearing a burkini is going to undermine the security of the French government.”

“I’d say the burkini has to do with comfort, not necessarily religion,” she added.

Rapp, of MarSea Modest, wants to know how the French government is going to decide what is a burkini and what is not. Burkini/Burqini is actually a registered trademark belonging to an Australian company, one of the first producers of the modest sport and swimwear suits, which was created for religious Muslim girls who wanted to play sports.

“Where do they draw the line? If sleeves are three quarter sleeves or long sleeves?” she asked. “What distinguishes the burkini from other modest swimwear is the head covering, and that’s what identifies woman wearing that as a Muslim. It’s the fear of Islam, that’s what’s going on.”

“The law is ridiculous, I don’t know how they can enforce it,” she said.

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