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The battle over the ‘burqini’ in a small German town

The Islamic full-length swimming suit known as a burqini is displayed at a sports store in Dubai in 2009. (Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images)
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The idea behind a burqini is simple. It’s a women’s garment made of swimsuit material that covers the entire body, except for the face, hands and feet. By covering the majority of a woman’s skin, it allows her to swim without worrying about the requirements in some Islamic cultures to dress modestly while in public.

While the burqini may sound straightforward, it is quite controversial. German media recently reported that a public pool in Neutraubling in the German state of Bavaria had banned swimmers from wearing burqinis. According to Abendzeitung, the decision had been made after a young woman had turned up to a water aerobics class in a burqini. A number of other women in the class had complained, which led town officials to decide the outfit was not appropriate at the pool and should not be allowed.

Town Mayor Heinz Kiechle told the paper that there was no “burqini ban” per se, and that instead swimming pools simply required conventional swimwear. For women, that would be a standard one-piece swimsuit or a bikini. A burqini would not be allowed, but nor would a wetsuit or a T-shirt. An additional reason for the rule, Kiechle told the Mittelbayerische Zeitung, was that there had been complaints about male asylum seekers in the area attempting to use the pool while wearing underwear.

Swimming pools have become a surprising battleground in Europe’s culture wars in recent years. At the start of this year there were reports that asylum seekers and migrants in a number of countries had been banned from swimming pools after alleged sexual assaults. A more complicated issue is female modesty: In Sweden, a country that prides itself on gender equality, the idea of female-only swimming hours has prompted a backlash by those who say it goes against the country’s ethos.

These clashes over swimming pools aren’t unique to Europe nor to certain religious faiths. The New York Times recently published an editorial that called for a public pool in Brooklyn to stop having designated times when only women and girls may swim. The pool’s policy, which had been in place since the 1990s, was aimed at Orthodox Jews in the area who have a somewhat similar view of female modesty.

In Europe, however, the dispute is usually framed in terms of Islam. This is not the first burqini ban in the continent. In 2009, a French woman was banned from a facility outside Paris after she wore the garment in the pool. According to the Daily Telegraph, she had been informed that the pool forbade “swimming while clothed.”

In Neutraubling, the mayor made a similar argument, telling Abendzeitung that there were concerns the burqini was “unhygienic.” Not everyone agrees.

In 2014, after a similar debate about the burqini in public pools, the German city of Konstanz issued a ruling that the burqini was “conventional swimwear.” Munich, the largest city in Bavaria, would not be pursuing a policy like Neutraubling’s, a representative told Abendzeitung. Burqinis “are allowed with us and are just as acceptable as bikinis, swimsuits or swimming trunks,” the spokesman told the newspaper, adding that it was the material rather than the shape of the garment that mattered.

In fact, the burqini’s popularity more generally seems to be rising rather than falling, with such big-name as retailers Britain’s Marks & Spencer producing their own swim garments for modesty-conscious women and some non-Muslim western celebrities wearing the burqini.

However, Neutraubling’s restriction on the garment may have achieved a more immediate aim: According to Mittelbayerische Zeitung, the young swimmer who started the controversy hasn’t returned to the pool since.

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