Why do men insist on telling women what to wear?

 |  Just Catholic

As summer wanes in the Northern Hemisphere, it beckons in the Global South. And so the burkini wars will probably continue.

The burkini is a form of women's swimwear, increasingly popular with Muslim women, which is creating an uproar along the French Riviera and elsewhere in Europe. The name itself combines burqa and bikini. Created and trademarked by a Lebanese-born Australian fashion designer, the burkini looks rather like a hooded wetsuit covered by a tunic. It's not as bad as it sounds.

No one knows how many burkinis have been sold -- some estimate up to a million or more -- and European towns and cities are increasingly trying to ban it along with other forms of Muslim dress for women.

In photos, burkinis look nice, although I would hate to be an ocean beach lifeguard responsible for a burkini-wearer's safety. They are not as bad as the 18th-century long skirts with weights, or the 19th-century bloomers and other cover-up beachwear once common for women around the world, but burkinis just don't look that sea worthy to me.

That aside, the problem of wearing -- or not wearing -- burkinis boils down to men telling women what to wear. We know about veils and headscarves. And, don't forget, for the longest time, it was scandalous even in Western societies for a woman's legs to be seen. So there were all sorts of outfits and contraptions to keep the female body out of sight at the beach.

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Things changed very slowly. In fact, today's burkinis look very much like 1920s bathing suits, with leggings. But as the 20th century moved on, much of the world gradually accepted ordinary women's bathing suits over their earlier cover-ups, first with skirts, later without.

The big explosion in feminine swim wear came toward the end of the Second World War, when bikinis hit the beaches. Invented in the late 1940s, the bikini is named for the Bikini Atoll, where atomic bomb testing was then taking place. By the 1960s, bikinis were all over the place, to the deep upset of those who would defend the world against such "immorality." Time once was you could be fined for wearing a bikini on various European beaches. Now, especially in France, the reverse is true and town fathers are telling women they cannot cover up.

Believe it or not, the burkini is banned by about 30 coastal French towns, the majority of which are maintaining their ordinances despite one town's ban being overruled by France's high court. Elsewhere, last month, Denmark began debating a burkini ban, citing fears of terrorism. Burkinis are illegal in at least one Austrian town. And the burkini fine in Belgium is 137 euros. These all join the many European nations banning the burqa -- the now familiar full-body female covering -- in various public places or facilities.

Here is the problem. Some understandings of Islamic custom and law require women to cover their bodies in various grades of severity. In some interpretations, the face veil has a cloth grid in front, allowing the woman to breathe and to see. In others, a women's eyes can appear from inside the tent-like veils and robes. Still others interpret the requirement as only applying to women's heads and hair and require a simple scarf. Most interpretations require long, loose garments. But many Europeans are both scandalized and fearful of women in voluminous clothing, the better to hide explosive devices in. Somehow that has translated into banning form-fitting burkinis, which cover the body excepting feet, hands and faces.

Today, as parliaments and town councils argue about what women can wear on the beach, they seem less concerned about modesty and more worried that some woman is going to stroll along the Mediterranean coastline with a plastic bomb strapped to her waist.

Yet the problem is less about terrorism and more about women's free determinations.

Of course, the problem goes in two directions. On one hand, in other eras and in current times, men, apparently unable to contain their own desires, have decided that women's bodies are too tempting for comfort. On the other hand, men seem to have decided that women cannot wear what could pass for an old-fashioned bathing suit on the beach. They think women need to show more skin.

Any way you look at it, it is a male problem foisted upon women.

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. She is scheduled to speak Sept. 24, 2016, at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., and Oct. 19, 2016 at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn. Her books include Women Deacons: Past, Present, FutureWomen Deacons? Essays with Answers and In the Image of Christ: Essays on Being Catholic and Female.]

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