Now Muslims Know How Michael Phelps Feels

Rachel Marsden

8/24/2009 12:00:33 AM - Rachel Marsden

At the recent World Swimming Championships, officials announced that competitors would soon be banned from using the new record-smashing, limit-testing buoyant high-tech polyurethane bodysuits. I’m sure Michael Phelps and his friends are bummed out. As a former record-setting competitive swimmer who used to shop for tight racing suits in the “infant” apparel section to score an advantage, I can attest to the desire to push the limit with one’s aquatic apparel. So can Muslims, apparently. Bans on their traditional burqas are sweeping Europe, so now they’re making them into “burqinis”, and arguing that since they have an aquatic spin, the attire should be exempt from the rules. A burqini is an outfit now worn by Muslim women in pools, most closely resembling a full tracksuit, with an added head covering or veil.

Italy banned the Islamic headscarf in July 2005, as part of its anti-terrorism package. The penalty for breach was set at 2 years in jail and a $3,200 fine. This week, a northern Italian town of Varallo Sesia banned the burqini from public pools, complete with a $700 fine for violation.

In 2004, France banned the headscarf in state schools, and the country is currently debating a widespread burqa ban in parliamentary committee. The French have seen the burqa take to the water in self-defence, as well. A French convert to Islam was booted from a French swimming pool earlier this month for wearing the jogging suit and veil outfit.

While working as a lifeguard to pay for university, I encountered my fair share of people who believed the pool was a “rules and judgment free zone” in much the same way that thugs in a boxing ring figure it’s impossible to be charged with anything short of murder. There was an Indian man who had to be thrown out of the pool for doing cannonballs off the high board in a giant white diaper contraption with a kirpan (religious sword worn by baptized Sikhs) shoved through its hip. It isn’t always a religious issue: A man with a giant tattoo of his naked wife across his back was offered a complimentary t-shirt to wear in the pool, in response to complaints from horrified mothers. He flipped out and refused to cover up, so he was thrown out.

And there were always signs posted around the pool stating that no street clothes were allowed in the pool, or street shoes on the pool deck, for hygienic reasons. But apparently some Muslims figure the average “street burqa” can be made into the exception. I thought at first that perhaps the word “burqini” was invented by Anglo media to describe what Muslims would just call a sweatsuit – but no, Ahiida Burqini Swimwear is the actual registered and trademarked name. So here’s a thought: If you don’t want people accusing your swimsuit of being a burqa, then don’t explicitly call it that. You can’t have it both ways. It’s either a burqa, or a sweatsuit worn in the water – both of which would be unacceptable for anyone to wear in a swimming pool anyway. Maybe try wearing it in a yoga class. They’re the hippies of the exercise community, so you should start with testing your luck there. Here are some good rules of thumb for lifeguards and other public officials who may end up scratching their heads over this issue: If it’s not in a Speedo catalogue, then it’s not a swimsuit. If it doesn’t show any cleavage, then it’s not a “bikini” or any variation thereof. If it doesn’t resemble anything in the Koran, and if it would be intolerable by Islamists outside of the pool, then it’s not a burqa either.

This isn’t about fashion choices. If it were, I wouldn’t have any moral authority on the matter, given that I spent most of my childhood in sweatsuits with my name stenciled down the side and across the back because my parents apparently felt that I might be in danger of losing their $40 investment. The burqa isn’t about bad fashion exclusively – it’s about what it conveys. Clothes, attire and accessories carry meaning. When I was in grade 5, one girl came up to me in my sweatsuit and said, “You would be really popular if you wore tight jeans, you know.” I responded, “I don’t want to be popular.” Similarly, when someone is at the gym or on the subway with an iPod plugged into their ears, they’re saying, “Go away and leave me alone.” If mere earphones can convey that message, then what does a head-to-toe sheet with a tiny slit over the eyes communicate? I have heard psychologists muse that people who are fat subconsciously choose to be that way to keep other people away. If we’re willing to accept that a layer of blubber on someone conveys isolation, then it ought to be easy to accept that a head-to-toe curtain shutting a woman off from the rest of the world is surely communicating the same.

Perhaps the most logical argument I have heard from those opposed to the burqa ban is that if women in the subservient Islamic culture are no longer allowed to wear the burqa in public, then their husbands will just keep them at home. Great – a fuzzy cultural debate then becomes a very clear case of forcible confinement and criminality. And THAT is something we can actively prosecute without any sort of self-inflicted cultural guilt.

Of course there are always places where the choices – of both dress and conduct towards women – would be viewed as preferable by those who are burqa-bent. No one is stopping them from going there and bodysurfing in all the comfort of their 300 thread count outfit.