The Burkini vs. Bikini War

The fracas in France over suitable swimwear is nothing new.  It wasn't too long ago (1919) that some twenty special deputies called "sheriffettes" were selected to monitor the swimwear of the bathers at Rockaway Beach, Queens, New York.  The concern was that public morals would be corrupted by the exposure of too much flesh.

The standard Victorian bathing dress was designed for full coverage of the female form, and men and women bathed in the sea separately.  Women, including Queen Victoria, were provided bathing machines, small wooden changing chambers on wheels.  The cubicles were then drawn out to sea after the women changed into suitable bathing attire.

The concern was modesty – the more coverage, the more modesty.  A lot of time, thought, and effort were put into opposition to the trend that eventually resulted in today's bikini, a garment that would have offended Victorian sensibilities even if it were worn as underwear.  The swimwear battle was hottest during the early twentieth century, but as one decade after another passed, the bikini eventually triumphed.  The near nudity permitted by the tiny attire became acceptable, mostly due to the sexual revolution fostered by secular progressivism.

It appears that in secular France, the battle over swimwear is indicative of a complete reversal of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century mores.  Evidently, to be a good, upstanding female citizen of today's France, one must wear a bikini, as more modest coverage is an assault on secularist sensibilities and sexual mores.  The attempt to force secular sexual mores on all women has resulted in the ridiculous sight of French policemen forcibly removing a Muslim woman's bathing attire, stripping her in public against her will.

French civil authorities used to demand that female bathers put on more clothes.  Now they demand that fully covered women swimmers take their clothes off.  Mon dieu!

The French have often been accused of frivolity and lack of seriousness.  Of course the stereotype is sweeping, but could anything appear more quixotic and injurious to the reputation of France than the sight of policemen taking clothes off women on the beach?

The farcical play acted out on the beach exhibited a frivolity that comes from focusing on externals, not on core issues facing France and its large minority of Muslim citizens.  The fact is that by concentrating on the burkini, an admittedly hideous; cumbersome; and, yes, even oppressive garment, French authorities are not dealing with the very real threat of Islamism in a serious manner.

The core issue does not involve burkinis.  It centers on the doctrines of Islamism, especially the doctrine that infidels such as secularist and Christian and Jewish Frenchmen and women are infidels who should be killed.

French authorities went about the confrontation in entirely the wrong way, concentrating on externals rather than on the doctrines of Islamists behind the deaths of so many.  The burkini is not the heart issue – after all, just what is the rationale behind the declaration that women must wear Western swimwear such as bikinis, which, for some at least, also make a negative announcement about the status of women?  What is the point of making women reveal their bodies if their beliefs do not permit it?

It almost hurts to repeat the obvious: the belief that infidels should die and that one should act on that belief by murdering infidels – that is the real issue.

Has not France experienced enough carnage wrought by Islamists to know what the real problem is?  Are the Charlie Hebdo incident, the slaughter of innocents during Bastille Day celebrations, and the beheading of Father Jacques Hamel not indicators that France's core problems concerning Muslims will not be solved by the Battle of the Burkini vs. the Bikini?

Symbolism, especially humiliating symbolism, is a hallmark of secularist progressivism.  Banning certain items of clothing and forcing the donning of Western apparel is nothing new.  It was Kemal Ataturk who banned the fez, which itself had been introduced a hundred or so years earlier as a modernizing reform to replace the turban.  Ataturk banned the hat because it represented nationalists who wished a return to the Ottoman Empire.  Ataturk himself wished to ally Turkey with the West, not attach policies to restoration of the Ottoman Empire.

Peter the Great, in his desire to secularize Russian, went on an anti-beard campaign aimed at ridding Russia of the power of the boyars.  He himself decided to remove beards forcibly and, in 1698, shaved the commander in chief of the army as well as the beards of Russian noblemen. 

Germane to the discussion of burkinis vs. bikinis is the fact that for the Russian Orthodox Church, the beard had religious significance.  As Ursula Kampmann points out in her article "Peter the Great as his nation's barber":

All the other big wigs in politics had to live with the fact that they had committed a big sin according to the Orthodox Church. Ivan the Terrible had worded: 'Shaving the beard is a sin the blood of all martyrs will not wash away. It would mean blemishing the image of man as God had created him.' Patriarch Adrian had verbalized only recently: 'God created man beardless, only dogs and cats have beards. Shaving is not just a stupid thing to do, it is a capital sin.' Hence, all people living in close contact with the Tsar were forced to renounce their faith in favour of the so-called progress.

At first, the shaving skills of the Tsar were restricted to those living closest to him. But shortly afterwards, Peter gave the order for the ordinary people to follow the example of the big wigs. The Tsar imposed a prohibition for every inhabitant of his country to wear a beard. Exceptions were made only for churchmen and peasants. Officials were sent out to supervise the ukase's implementation and to personally shave anybody refusing to obey on the spot.

Those who wished to keep their beards could do so by paying a beard tax.  After paying, the bearded one was given a token he'd paid to keep his beard.  Kampmann notes:

Those tokens have come down to us in several examples (fig. 2) and remind us of a time when a governing politician was still under the impression that he could control the progress of his country with the garment of his citizens.

Therein lies the core issue concerning the burkini vs. bikini debate.  True conversion lies not in outward appearances, but in a renewed spirit: rend your hearts, not your garments.

Outward changes like donning a bikini as acceptance of secularist sexual mores do not create change of the heart, nor do they do anything other than distract from the core issues at hand.  Banning the burkini will not forcibly convert Muslims to secular progressivism any more than Peter the Great's secularist, anti-beard reforms rid Russia of its Orthodox Christian roots.  Ataturk may have prohibited the fez, but the banning of a hat did not do much to quell those who still have a ferocious belief in a return of the caliphate, as the chaos in the Middle East and Turkey itself reveals.

The real solution must begin with dealing forcefully with the violent Islamists whose slogan "Allahu akbar" has always presaged a bloodbath that makes the burkini controversy recede into nothingness.

The resistance to a cult promoting death and violence must also be accompanied by the fostering of a weltanschauung presenting a strong and reasonable alternative to  zealotry demanding the death of the opposition.  

Fay Voshell is a frequent contributor to American Thinker.  Her thoughts have appeared in multiple online venues, including RealClearReligion, National Review, CNS, and Fox News.  She may be reached at

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