Burka talk in a time of bias


The latest Sports Illustrated’s famous swimsuit edition features an unlikely candidate: a fully covered Halima Aden.

Aden, who observes a modest dress code in accordance with the requirements of Muslim women to cover their bodies — with the exception of their hands, face and feet — has made a name for herself by gracing runways and magazine covers the world over, unapologetic about doing so while remaining covered up.

In her latest trailblazing moment, Aden is lying on Kenya’s Watamu Beach wearing a swimsuit which covers her entire body, referred to by Sports Illustrated as a “burkini”.

“We are absolutely thrilled to announce that Halima Aden is the newest member of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit family, making history as the first Muslim model to wear a hijab and burkini in the magazine,” says Sports Illustrated. “At SI Swimsuit, we strive to continue to spread the message that whether you are wearing a one-piece, a two-piece or a burkini, you are the pilot of your own beauty.”

This use — or rather, misuse — of the term “burkini” deserves a moment of deliberation. It is a loaded term that has come to carry more meaning than people may realise; a term that actually poses a threat to perceptions of Muslim women the world over.

Burkini is a portmanteau of the words burka and bikini. Inherent to it are all the Islamophobic sentiments that have become attached to the burka — a full-body covering some Muslim women choose to wear.

These stereotypes dehumanise Muslim women. They paint a picture of them as oppressed, docile and voiceless and reduce their identities — and indeed, their entire existence — to a single item of clothing.

What is unfortunate is that dressing modestly in order to swim — something that many, but not all, Muslim women do — has almost exclusively become known as “wearing a burkini”. This is arguably not least in part because of the 2016 incident in Nice, France, where a Muslim woman known only as Siam, clad in leggings and a top as she sat on the beach, was humiliated in front of her crying daughter and forced by French police to strip off the long-sleeved top and scarf that she was wearing, in front of strangers.

Siam’s clothing was quickly labelled a “burkini”. This provided legitimisation for the incident — the word, loaded with Islamophobic connotations, conveying the idea that Siam and her clothing were foreign, posed a threat, and thus did not belong.

Researcher Michelle Byng wrote in 2010: “The media have represented Islam and Muslims as culturally incompatible with the values, norms, and interests of Western nations.”

The reality is that Muslim women, like Siam, have been making the necessary accommodations to swim in public while dressed in accordance with their religious obligations for as long as they have been around. Whether it meant wearing leggings or other quick-dry fabrics, and oversized tops, they have done what they have had to do.

Something often ignored is that Burkini is actually a brand, conceptualised and designed in Australia by Aheda Zanetti, whose company Ahiida owns the trademarks to the words “burkini” and “burqini”. But the diluted public discourse doesn’t acknowledge Zanetti and her tongue-in-cheek contribution.

With her slim body and fine features, Aden is conventionally beautiful. In 2010, researcher Laura Navarro found that Western mass media — a category into which Sports Illustrated falls — tends to construct certain binary images of Muslim women: “A discourse dominated by the notions of passiveness and victimisation”, and, totally polar to it, “a seemingly positive image of a ‘liberated’ Muslim woman, closely linked to her Western-style clothes and/or their economic success”.

The magazine images of Aden play on the former to claim the latter. And, by using the burkini as a modal device, they give rise to the fetishisation of Muslim women. Instead of it empowering them, as a campaign like this purports to, it distracts the audience: by making them marvel at a spectacle, their attention is diverted from being critical of the platform and of the normalised ideas which the campaign is supposedly resisting.

It is not Aden’s responsibility to woke-wash the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition, which is notorious for representing women tailored to the male gaze. Further, Aden does not need to legitimise the bigotry that already exists and surrounds perceptions of Muslim women.

Indeed, Muslim women can wear or not wear whatever they choose to, in any context. Like all people, they have choices, and their agency to make them ought to be respected.

A great disservice is done to Muslim women when their clothing, only, is focused on. Instead of glossing over their varied identities and experiences to salivate over glossy images, we ought to reflect on and respect their complexities.

Aaisha Dadi Patel, who completed her master’s in media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, is a member of the M&G’s online team

Aaisha Dadi Patel
Aaisha Dadi Patel
Aaisha Dadi Patel cut her teeth at The Daily Vox in 2014, and now works in a freelance capacity. She's written about everything from politics to polar bears, with particular interests in gender and Islam. She holds an MA in Media Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand.

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