Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The burkini, or who knew that my spring lesson wasn't over yet?

My ancestor Franciska is about their age and scowling in the 1893 photograph I project to my third- and fourth-grade students. 

“How do you think this girl is feeling?” Unhappy, angry, sulking, reply some of the students. They are right, and I explain to them why: It is a hot day—in the photo, she and other family members squint into the sun, and the grass below them is dried out. Franciska and her sister Rosika are in the photo; my great-great aunts. Their brother Bela, my great-grandfather, is lying on the ground, propped up sideways with his elbow, in short pants, and light polo shirt, holding a croquet mallet. He looks serious, but comfortable. Both girls are wearing long-sleeved, lacy dresses with high necks and tightly laced up boots. Rosika looks possibly resigned, or at least calm; Franciska, the younger sister, totally pissed off. 

Suffrage is the issue that kids usually learn about for women's history, but I tend to think out of the box. I wanted to show my students another aspect of women’s rights for a change. I began by showing my students photos of what women wore at the beach over a hundred years ago, and read them picture books about Amelia Bloomer and Annette Kellerman which presented the idea of dress reform, the 19th-early 20th century effort to allow Western women to wear looser, lighter, and more sports-friendly clothing. Ironically, the bloomers that were so controversial in Bloomer’s mid-19th century were considered acceptable as swimwear by the early 20th. But then Kellerman, an Australian swim champion, came along and changed that, too, with her one-piece bathing suit. In Boston in 1907, she got arrested for it. 

This shocked my students. Getting arrested for wearing a one-piece bathing suit? “But Amelia Bloomer and her friends got arrested, too, when they wore bloomers and dresses that reached ‘only’ their knees,” I pointed out. 

So, women have been getting arrested for what they wear to the beach for quite a while now. But in this day and age, who thought they would risk arrest for wearing MORE than what is required?

We always think of the historical changes in women’s wear as being gradually less, or more like what men wear. Bloomers to one-pieces-to-bikinis. Long skirts to knee-length-to-pants-to-shorts.

A nice, simple trajectory toward less, except that not every woman wants that. As I was reading and talking with my students, I was not, myself, wearing pants, shorts or short skirts like most of the girls were. As an Orthodox Jew, I habitually wear knee-length or long skirts, and I cover up somewhat at the beach or pool. I also feel more comfortable this way because I am overweight and fair-skinned. It’s still swim material, like a rash guard or scuba outfit - just more of it.

Also, I live in a fairly multiethnic area. As my students and I were discussing the issue of dress reform, I was mindful of the fact that South Asian emigre mothers of some of my students might also cover up to some extent — and I framed our discussion in terms of choice, not being forced to cover or uncover.  Personally, I wear what I wear and I don’t care what other people do.

I also realize it’s not a cut-and-dry situation - that women in Saudi Arabia have to cover their hair whether they want to or not, and that in the case of Jewish Orthodoxy, girls are raised to believe they must cover their hair once they are married. But we take for granted that a Western, secular society is supposed to be more free, say, than a country or run by imams. It's not a simple issue. I don't have a problem with covering up even more than I usually do when I visit, say, a Hasidic neighborhood in Jerusalem, but I also don't like it when that neighborhood becomes the whole city. Or when an entire, supposedly secular city like Nice imposes its vision of secularism on its beaches.

In any case, what the so-called liberal French authorities are doing isn't particularly indicative of choice or freedomThe sight of policemen standing over women telling them to wear what even I would consider skimpy is deeply disturbing. I don't think it's an accident that, in the face of unwillingness to address the very real problem of terrorism, that the government chose a rather weak, ineffectual attack on women.

And it does nothing to counter the threat of terrorism. For security reasons, I don’t think women should be allowed to keep their faces covered. However, I would think that the women who are banned from French beaches because they can’t cover up,wind up feeling even less a part of French society. That kind of disassociation is more likely to lead to extremism against the West.

I hope my students recalled the dress reform books and discussion when they saw the news about “burkini bans” over the summer. I hope they remember the main point I tried to make - that dress reform was about choice, not force.

Knowing what I know about my great-great aunt Franciska, no doubt she was scowling in that photo because of the uncomfortable dress she had to wear on that hot day. And, I note to my students, she and her sister grew up to become not only suffragists, but also dress reformers. Franciska was very anti-religious and would most certainly have not approved of the burkini. On the other hand, she lived in a different age, when women weren’t judged by how good they look in a bikini. And she would most definitely not have liked the sight of those policemen standing over the women on the beach.  

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