Back in my early days of authorhood, I filled out a blog interview questionnaire that asked me what my superhero identity would be, “real” or imagined. My answer, as you may have guessed from this post’s title, was Burkini Babe. At the time, I did not own a burkini (though I really wanted one), and Ms. Marvel had yet to be even whispered about. In fact, when I opened the pages of the first Ms. Marvel comic and found that she altered her burkini to make her superhero outfit, I very nearly squee-ed in excitement. It was such a YES! moment that it still makes me grin.
I grew up playing in the water. When I chose to start wearing hijab at the age of seventeen, I still had the chance to use a pool that had women’s hours in the afternoon in the complex where my parents lived when I went home each summer. I even took a lifeguarding class and worked as a summer lifeguard there for a couple years–one of the best summer jobs I’ve ever had.
But once I married and settled in Cincinnati, I found myself high and dry. There were no pools that offered women’s only hours. There was not yet any such thing as a burkini. And I missed the water. Oh my word, I missed swimming. It was the only form of exercise I have ever actually enjoyed aside from Tae Kwon Do, which is fantastic but a bit of an expensive outlet. And yet I could not go swimming without compromising an aspect of my faith which I held dear–hijab, with all its attendant principles of modesty, valuing my body for what it is, and refusing to allow its objectification. For me, hijab is about me owning my body, caring for it and loving it, and yeah, not letting society judge me by it. So, no water.
By the time burkinis became a thing, I’d all but forgotten how much I loved swimming. But then I had kids, and I wanted, oh how I wanted, to teach them to swim. I tried sending them into the water with my husband, and that was somewhat successful, but we didn’t get very far. And I didn’t get to do it with them. So I went online, and shopped around, and flinched at the price tags (though, to be fair, there is a LOT of cloth and sewing involved), and then I bought a burkini.
I love it. I love it even though it is the most unflattering thing I’ve probably every worn (which is saying something), and not particularly great in the realm of “flow” for swimming. I love it because I can get in the water with my kids and play. Together, singing songs and splashing, we got through their fear of water last summer. And this summer, we are teaching our kids to swim, step by wonderful step, watching their confidence grow and their faces light with laughter and excitement. These are precious things for me, and I am so grateful for them.
Two days ago a news story popped up in my feed that made me stop and close my eyes and just sit, quietly, trying not to be furious. As reported in Newsweek, a number of towns and cities across France, Italy, and Morocco have banned the burkini. Their arguments? It’s unhygienic (even though it’s made of swimsuit material and covers more skin, arguably reducing direct contact of anything questionable between swimmers) and not “socially responsible” since it promotes “the shutting away of women’s bodies.” Although, one might also note that exerting power over women’s bodies is one of the oldest forms of oppression–and, therefore, deciding what we can or cannot wear is always an act of oppression, no matter how enlightened or secular (or religious) you think you are.
I am grateful right now that I do not live in France or Italy or Morocco. I am grateful that I can go to our neighborhood pool, and our neighbors grin when they see me in my burkini, my kids in their swimsuits, all of us having a grand time in the water. But I am deeply disturbed by this widening trend. It means that in many places there are women just like me who can no longer play with their children in the water, who may never be able to teach their kids to swim–or learn, themselves–because of rising levels of discrimination and Islamaphobia. It is a loss of freedom that I feel keenly, and all the more deeply for the likelihood that it is only a precursor to greater acts of discrimination.
If burkinis had first been developed by skin cancer survivors, would there have been bans put in place? Of course not. If conservative Jewish women had first marketed a burkini, would we have banned them? Goodness no. But Muslims are the current bogeymen, just as communists were sixty years ago, and so it is quite all right.
Except that it isn’t. Today, I can play in the water with my kids. I will teach them to swim as quickly as I can, because I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow, or if I’ll still be allowed this chance. Certainly, there are many women who no longer can. Nor do I know what other rights will slowly be eroded away, what freedoms I have taken for granted will suddenly be revoked, big or small.
So today I am taking a moment to be grateful for a simple joy I have. I am taking a moment to share my story, because, although I tend to be private about my personal life, as an author I understand the power of story. So step into my flip-flops for a moment, slip into this burkini (it’s a bit baggy, but there are worse fates), and realize that underneath all these things, I want to play in the water with my kids as much as the next mom, and possibly even go for a swim on my own. Why should that be a problem?