Photo Credit: pixabay

When my family and I make our annual summer pilgrimage to the beach, the kids don swimwear and head right for the waves, while my husband and I, who prefer lounging under umbrellas on rented reclining chairs, wear comfortable old clothes for the day. So far, no one has ever accosted us for the crime of being fully dressed at the beach.

In parts of France, however, such attire could have put us at risk for a brush with the law – the law against burkinis, the Muslim version of tzanua swimwear. In case you’re not familiar with the burkini, it bears no resemblance to a bikini, and is rather like a full-body wetsuit, usually featuring a tunic-length top above pants, and completely covering the head but leaving the face exposed.


Many cities on the French Riviera banned the burkini back in 2016, supposedly for security concerns – terrorism, not drowning – but no less as an affront to France’s staunch commitment to secularism in the public sphere. This is the country where religious symbols, including head coverings, are verboten in schools, civil service and sports competitions.

Images of police ticketing women and making them strip down on the surf – reverse vice squads, the antipodes of the Taliban – made for some very bad PR.

The burkini ban was overturned in court, but debate has raged ever since. Now the Muslim swimwear is back in the news after a measure enacted in the city of Grenoble permitting all types of swimwear, including the burkini, in municipal swimming pools has been struck down by France’s top administrative court. The court determined that the rule was enacted to “satisfy religious demands” and violated the principle of “neutrality in public services.” France’s iron-clad separation between church and state is enshrined in a nearly 120-year-old law.

Since the French have a beef specifically with religiously expressive attire, I wonder whether a bathing suit with, say, a Magen David motif would run afoul. More to the point, how about the three-quarter-sleeve, knee-length swim dresses or skirted sets many frum women, myself among them, wear in mixed-swimming settings? These are more feminine and somewhat more revealing than the burkini but are likewise worn for religious reasons. What would the gendarmes make of our Jewish swimwear?

Burkini opponents have also raised hygiene concerns with regard to wearing the heavy-duty garments in French public pools, where hygiene rules are strict. But it’s no secret that the real impetus for the ban is a desire to rein in the influence of Islam and its association with extremism in a country which has seen not only its share of Islamist attacks but also the effects of changing demographics. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, close to nine percent of the population according to a recent survey, along with one of the highest proportions of citizens who identify as secular. The burkini has become a symbol of this culture war.

Islamic face coverings, called niqab, which are often incorporated into the full-body burqa, are illegal in France and many other countries, but in contrast to the burkini, the security threat those present is readily apparent. Even in the U.S. of A., women can be required to uncover their faces for security checks or identification.

The burkini seems relatively moderate in comparison. While the idea of forcing Muslim women, or any women, to violate their own standards of modesty in order to enjoy a splash in the water – or engage in public life for that matter – is anathema to me, I feel very differently about the fringe element of ultra-Orthodox females who have adopted the burqa as their own. (No, it’s not an urban legend. You can spot them around Israel.)

Noisomely dubbed the “frumqa,” these shapeless black body coverings not only co-opt another religion’s practice as our own – talk about chukat hagoyim! – but make a mockery of halacha altogether. I can’t imagine what these women wear to swim, if they ever do. As it is, I am baffled when I see frum women going swimming fully covered at a separate swimming site.

Like the cropped or blotted out female faces in articles and advertisements, and the wives’ and mothers’ names missing from invitations and dinner ads, the wholesale shrouding of women’s bodies renders them invisible in the community and equates femininity with impurity and impiety. What a twisted message the offspring (boys and girls) of these burqa-wearers grow up with, further perverting our mesorah for the next generation.

There is nothing more honorable than a tastefully, gracefully, and modestly dressed Jewish woman. That’s what I want my daughters and all Jewish children to learn and see role-modeled around them – with much variation on the theme, to be sure, but still anchored by Torah.

As for those devout Muslim women looking to cool off this summer, to paraphrase a famous Frenchwoman: Let them wear burkinis.

Share this article on WhatsApp:

Previous articleFrom Loneliness To Oneness: The Endless Expansion of Self
Next articleIt’s Final: Israeli Elections on 7 Cheshvan, 5783 (November 1, 2022) and Interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid
Ziona Greenwald, a contributing editor to The Jewish Press, is a freelance writer and editor and the author of two children's books, “Kalman's Big Questions” and “Tzippi Inside/Out.” She lives with her family in Jerusalem.