Older readers may remember the big hit of the summer of 1960, Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini. It tells the story of a nice young girl who has put on a bikini but is nervous about showing herself in public. The song reached No 1 in the US and New Zealand, and is credited with having helped change forever the dress code at the beach. Before Itsy Bitsy, bikinis were considered very naughty; after Itsy Bitsy they remained naughty but became more or less mandatory. The point has now been reached where a woman in a bikini provokes no more controversy than a woman in trousers. Oh, wait … the Rt Rev Richard Williamson might have something to say about that.
Alas, time has not been kind to the bikini – or to the women who wear them. These days you see some really horrifying things at the seaside. In Margate a few weeks ago, I was walking along a sea front littered with broken beer bottles and discarded nappies and dog muck (or worse), and was forced to avert my eyes when they lit upon a slightly plump woman wearing a cheese-cutter thong bikini and busying herself in preparing a picnic lunch. It was a sight that made you wince.
Muslim women do not wear bikinis. They wear burkinis, a garment that covers the bather from head to toe. Is the burkini in the same position now as the bikini in 1960? Is it on the edge of a breakthrough? One hopes not, but the omens are not good. After the banning of burkinis in some parts of France last month, sales of the garment at one Australian outlet rose by 200 per cent. Big fashion houses and retail stores in Europe have been doing brisk burkini business, too. By the end of last month Marks & Spencer had run out of stock. Last week there was another boost for the burkini when France’s highest administrative court ruled that the burkini ban was illegal and had breached “fundamental freedoms”. Well, poo to fundamental freedoms.
I have some sympathy for the burkini banners. What about freedom of the French people not to be intimidated at the beach – or for, that matter, mildly offended, or irritated, or tempted to think uncharitably about immigrants? Consider the people of Nice. Following the unspeakable slaughter of July, they have good reason to feel threatened by any manifestation of strict Islam.
And yet … there was something Keystone Cops about the heavily armed police who surrounded that burkini-clad woman in Nice last week. The charge against her was that she was wearing an outfit that disrespected “good morals and secularism”. What embarrassing piety. The French really should get over their Revolution. Good morals and secularism are not natural allies. There are many admirable secularists, of course, and many of them are good and moral; but these days secularism itself, especially in Europe and North America, is driven by moral relativism. It rejects the objective moral order, in other words, even if secularists themselves love to talk about morality. (Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins have few equals when it comes to delivering high-minded sermons.)
In the end, both the burkini and the bikini are, at base, products of a mindset that regards women as commodities. The left-liberal Yasmin Alibhai-Brown made a good point when she wrote in the Daily Mail earlier this year: “When companies sell overly revealing clothes to girls, they are colluding with the poisonous idea that women’s bodies are there purely to attract the sexual attention of men. Ironically, the same message is given when women and girls accept that they must veil parts of their bodies or disappear under full veils. These are two sides of the same coin.”
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