Burkini Babe: A Short History of My Love of Water and a Comment on Swimsuit Bans

Posted by on Aug 16, 2016 in Stop and Think | 16 comments

Burkini Babe: A Short History of My Love of Water and a Comment on Swimsuit Bans

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 only wish my burkini was this cool…

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.


Also, can I have a show of support for being able to go down water slides?

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.


Family day at the beach, because, come on, isn’t that what the beach is for? How is there anything wrong with this picture?

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?


photo credit: burkini via photopin (license)

photo credit: Burqini (water slide) via photopin (license)

photo credit: The burkini makes it to Amasra via photopin (license)

  • Alina Sayre

    This is a lovely post. Thanks for taking time to share your story and educate others. I love your reminder that “exerting power over women’s bodies is one of the oldest forms of oppression.” Here’s to freedom and swimming!

    • You are so welcome–thank you for reading and for your support and friendship. The politics of women’s bodies is kind of crazy, isn’t it? I’m not exactly expert on the area (I always wanted to take more gender studies classes in college…) but I’m still amazed that as humans we always revert back to the same awful cycles, the same ugly methods to establish our own power and legitimacy especially over women. I suppose every generation has to work through things for themselves, learn to stand up and think and reject injustices, and we have so many more ways to reach each other and speak to each other now than we ever did before. So here, indeed, is to freedom and swimming!

  • Tineke

    I can’t understand the decisions made in France, either. Their arguments are unlogical, just like you wrote. They always say people should integrate, but now they make it impossible for women to enjoy a day at the beach or in the pool, like everyone else?I don’t understand it and I hope other places won’t follow and I hope you and your family have more great days in the water.

    • Thank you so much, Tineke! You’re absolutely right about the integration argument… because what folks who say this and then support these bans are asking for is assimilation, not integration. Integration requires everyone being willing to hang out together and trying to do so successfully. Putting bans in place says: we don’t want you here unless you change who/what you are to make us happy. And that’s the stuff of heartbreak and injustice right there. I too hope that this will be more of a wake-up call than something that sets a precedent. And yes! My girls and I are very much looking forward to all the water time we can get! 😉

  • Thank you so much–for reading, for commenting, for your support. It really is so sad to me how easily we can shut out others, take away their humanity, call into question their intelligence or competence (there was a quote in that Newsweek article from a French minister that had my blood boiling), and then, so very easily, revoke their civil liberties one by one, starting with little things and making our way along. We’ve done it so very many times through history, it’s no wonder we’re repeating it… except that there are people like you and me out there in the world, and telling our stories and standing in solidarity does make a difference. So thank you, again, for being here and for caring!

  • Elisabeth Wheatley

    I admit I freaked out when I saw the title of that post because my 6am brain interpreted “burkini” as some adult beverage and I was trying to figure out why that was on one of my favorite YA author’s blog. Now I am enducated and much more appreciative. Yay for water slides!

    • Bahahaha! Okay, so I should probably not have assumed everyone knew what a burkini was just because (a) I’m so tickled to have one and be able to wear it and (b) other folks are being loud about them. But yeah, definitely not related to alcoholic beverages at all. <3 Thank you so much for the laugh, and for reading. Water slides rock!

  • SS

    I am a conservative Christian who is absolutely appalled by the bans that these towns are putting in place. It’s just wrong – on so many levels. I am glad that you can wear a modest bathing suit and swim with your children. I feel a rant coming on, so I need to stop before it comes out! 🙂

    • Thank you so much, SS! And ha! I totally understand the sense of outrage and the tingly feeling of a rant at the tip of my fingers. 😉 It took me a while to figure out how I wanted to talk about this issue, because I didn’t want to rant either. Thank you so much for reading, and for your support!

  • Agreed in so many ways–so much of this seems to be based in equal measures of fear and bigotry. I can’t find any way to combat that other than to make myself human, and so my post. 😉 There is so very much wrong in the world nowadays, and no one of us can fix it all, or claim to be able to understand it even. But we are certainly seeing that same cycle coming around again of rising hatred, dehumanization, and then all the horrors that are usually allowed to follow that. One would think that we would have learned, or that with our technology being what it is, we would learn to see each other’s humanity and find ways to stop the cycle. I’m still hoping, and working, for that. But it is both depressing and frightening to watch the world turn.

  • Simon Says

    Thank you so much for this post! I love your books, and think you make an eloquent argument for the burkini. After all, isn’t the banning of it another way of pushing forward what women “should” wear, assuming that any woman who wears a burkini is doing so because a man makes her, and not of her own free will? Just because these are not values held by some does not mean they are wrong. This is something we, as an increasing multi-cultural society, need to be more aware of. FYI, I’m writing this as a Jewish bikini wearer.

    • You’re absolutely right–having different values, or showing them in different ways, does not mean someone is wrong. We/they are just different. We can learn a lot about the world and ourselves by reflecting on those differences and learning to appreciate them. And ha! Your last line made me laugh. Isn’t it funny how sometimes we have to distill ourselves into a few words that only sum up a portion of us–words that are both barely relevant and yet important enough that they can eclipse whole other portions of our identity? I never thought I’d publicly identify as a “Muslim burkini wearer” and yet here I am. So very glad that we are both who we are, and that we can have this conversation. Thank you so much for commenting! <3

  • Ashley Keener

    Thank you so much for this post. The recent ban left me mad. Who cares as long as you have choice and are not hurting anyone?! I am a Christian and even though I try to be as accepting as I can, sometimes have wondered if Islamic women truly have the desire to wear their traditional dress, but have always thought that it’s not my decision to make. Especially since it doesn’t matter one way or another! While I have had friends of many different nationalities and faiths, I have not known many Muslims. Your post here makes me so happy to hear first hand how you feel about your dress. I’ve never cared how people dress as long as they want to and you want to! With how crazy the world can be, especially as of late, it’s sometimes hard to know what is right and wrong and to even doubt ones beliefs. Your post truly strengthens my belief that no matter what you believe, who you are, or how you look, choice is the only way. I don’t care that you’re not Christian and I believe taking away your choice to wear what you want insults both of our Gods. I have loved reading your stories and know that you are a strong person. You have to be to write what you do. Please keep up the good fight against injustice. Raising your voice to help protect your liberties and other’s is never wrong! Thank you for sharing and keep swimming!

    • Hi Ashley – Thanks so much for this! As with you, I think it’s so important to respect others’ beliefs whether we understand them or not. It does sort of crack me up that there is such a divide in understanding on this issue when really, most Muslim women the media talks about are dressed a lot like the Virgin Mary. We don’t see her as oppressed, we revere her level of faith, her strength, and her modesty, but somehow we don’t translate that to women who dress similarly nowadays. (As Muslims, we also believe in Jesus, but only as a prophet. If you were to ask a Muslim, we’d say that we are all worshipping the same God.) I’m with you completely on this–choice is the vital factor. There are places that require women to dress a certain way–some for religious reasons and some for secular reasons–and that upsets me a lot. I can’t wait for the day when we care more about what women are saying than what they’re wearing. In the meantime, let’s all support each others’ right to choose!

  • lill fish

    Late to the party here, but…The pseudo feminist excuse for the burkini ban really torqued me when I read about it a few months ago. I consider myself a feminist. I also consider myself modest by American standards: sleeveless outfits, miniskirts, and clingy clothes just aren’t my style. There’s no religious reason behind my preference; it’s just how I feel comfortable. I’m also fair skinned and burn easily. I haven’t worn a swimsuit in the water in over 15 years. I prefer to be more covered up. My usual outfit is some variation on a rash guard.

    A few years ago I was seriously thinking about getting a burkini. Serious coverage, serious sun protection– what a fantastic idea, I thought at the time. (I ended up getting a triathlon suit instead; just more options available locally. ) My inner libertarian seethes at the idea that I or any other woman can’t choose to swim in something we find comfortable and practical — whatever the reasons for our choice.

    • Thanks so much, Lill Fish! One of my favorite things about this whole issue were all the pictures of scuba divers in wetsuits who took pictures of themselves in their “burkinis” – asking if they would now need to reveal some skin in order to keep swimming. Ha! And I agree–women have the right to choose what we would like to wear, whatever our reasons. <3 Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

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