It’s an intriguing problem: going to the beach is fun, but the fact that swimsuits are generally pretty revealing is a problem for Muslim women who are literally covered from head to toe as a matter of religious tradition and devotion.
Enter the burkini, beachwear that covers the body from head to toe like a burka but which can be worn to the beach and in the water. The burkini’s creator is an Australian named Aheda Zanetti who wanted “to allow Muslim women to participate in the Australian beach lifestyle,” and the BBC reports that, according to Zanetti, her online burkini sales have risen 200%.
A garment that conforms to religious ideas about modesty for women while allowing them to better integrate into the broader society around them? What’s not to love? The burkini is an excellent illustration of the free market at work. Zanetti saw a problem: a wet hijab clinging to a woman’s body would violate conservative Muslim beliefs about modesty. She invented a product that solves the problem.
Whether this is a good use of resources is a matter to be determined by a market test, not by outside observers. I, for example, know hardly anything about the history and doctrinal underpinnings of Islamic modesty standards and would be ill-equipped to decide whether the burkini is or is not a good idea. Moreover, it would be presumptuous—boorish, even—for me to expect to be consulted.
Alas, governments aren’t bound by such conventions as good manners. Reason’s Steve Chapman reports on French municipalities that have banned the burkini on the grounds that it is “a symbol of Islamic extremism,” to use the words of the mayor of Cannes, and an affront to the values of secularism.
Chapman writes of the burkini-banners: “Their argument goes as follows: France must dictate what Muslim women wear to teach them that no one may dictate what they wear.” As he notes,
“A ban on modest clothing will not emancipate tyrannized females but add to their oppression. A woman whose husband allows her to swim only in a burkini probably won’t respond to a ban by letting her venture forth in a two-piece. He will probably respond by not letting her swim at all. Instead of freeing the affected Muslim women, a ban will trap them in their homes.”
Banning the burkini is hardly a victory for a free and pluralistic—even secular—society. Rather, it is an affront to these values. Imposing the values of secularism on “oppressed” Muslim women who wish to buy burkinis merely replaces one form of religious oppression with another.