The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Burkini bans continue a long history of men controlling women’s beachwear

Nissrine Samali, 20, gets into the sea wearing traditional Islamic dress, in Marseille, southern France, on Aug. 4. (--/Associated Press)

Once upon a time, a scantily clad lass padding down a beach might cause a riot — at least of eyeballs eager to extend a sidelong glance.

Today, it's the fully clothed woman who overheats passions in France, where three towns have banned the burkini. Leave it to the French to criminalize modesty.

Latest to the ban-wagon is the Corsican village of Sisco, where three Muslim families and a group of local teens reportedly got into a row this weekend when one of the Muslim men became upset as a tourist photographed his burkini-clad wife.

The next day, riot police were needed in a nearby town to quell 200 protesters who stormed a housing area of mostly North African people, shouting "this is our home." The precise cause of that flare-up wasn't known.

Did a burkini do it?

No clue, according to local authorities, but Sisco is banning the ultimate coverup anyway, to "protect the population." Back on the mainland, the mayors of Cannes and nearby Villeneuve-Loubet also have banned burkinis. Muslim associations unsuccessfully challenged the Cannes ban but have promised to appeal the decision.

In the strangest justification offered for the wardrobe ban, Lionnel Luca, mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet, said it is unhygienic to swim fully clothed. For whom? The fish?

Tensions in France between Muslims and others may be understandable in light of recent events, including the horror in Nice last month when a truck driver shouting paeans to Allah mowed down hundreds of Bastille Day revelers, killing 85 people, as well as the recent jihadist slaying of the beloved 85-year-old priest Jacques Hamel in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray.

But how the practice of modesty associated with many Muslims’ religious beliefs became an offense against the majority society is hard to fathom. The burkini also provides an interesting study in the metamorphosis of a symbol and its use in rationalizing other beliefs and actions that bear striking similarities to the extreme religiosity that caused such consternation in the first place.

Suddenly, the burkini has become France’s Confederate battle flag. Like the flag, the burkini means different things to different people, yet it has become such a powerful symbol of the cultural clash between overzealous French patriots and Muslim immigrants that it has become a prompt to man the barricades.

It is hardly shocking that women are the objects of such aggression. Or that men are the ones fighting over what women ought to be doing with their bodies. Depending on the era — and often the prevailing religion — women are either showing too much or too little. Frankly, I’d like to see more, not fewer, burkinis on the beach, especially for Speedo-lovers over 50. Guys, do you own a mirror? (Please don’t send pictures.)

It isn't just men concerned with burkinis. Some feminists and the "enlightened" French see the burkini as a visual face-slap to women's egalité. Among other things, equality means never having to cover up just because your natural self gets another's gander up.

Non-Muslims in the West may disapprove of the practice and prefer our mores over those of strict Muslims, but we're in no position to be smug. Less than 100 years ago in Washington, modesty police literally measured women's bathing suit skirts to ensure adherence to the legal standard of only six inches above the knee. In 1921 Atlantic City, women were required to wear stockings pulled above the knee with their swimsuits. When young women protested the stocking law, it was the League of Women Voters that urged strict enforcement.

While beach patrols searched out bathing suit violators, they also scouted for their ogling male counterparts, described in a newspaper story of the time as "bald beach lizards." One brave woman, novelist Louise Rosine, went to jail rather than cover up her knees with stockings. It was "none of the city's darn business," she said, whether she "rolled 'em up or down."

We’ve come a long way, baby. And along the way, with few exceptions, we’ve found it possible to allow people to don (or not) their apparel as they wish. Some schools may ban message-emblazoned shirts. And we dutifully shed our jackets, scarves and shoes during security checks.

But liberté ought to mean that one can wear a burkini on the beach — or a thong, if you must. Neither suits my personal fancy, but it's hard to imagine that a Muslim woman dressed traditionally is a threat to any but her own comfort.

Like the lady said, it’s none of the city’s darn business.

Read more from Kathleen Parker's archive, follow her on Twitter or find her on Facebook.

Read more:

Adam Taylor: Banning burqas isn’t a sensible response to terrorism

David Ignatius: The Islamic State feeds off Western Islamophobia

Arun Kundani: The West’s Islamophobia is only helping the Islamic State

Kathleen Parker: Understanding the Islamic State

Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa: As Muslim women, we ask you not to wear the hijab in the name of interfaith solidarity