ANNABA Could this summer go by without the inescapable brouhaha over burkinis and bikinis? Certainly not. Last year, it was France that was consumed by debate over the wearing of so-called burkinis by Muslim women to stay fully covered when swimming at the beach. This time, the news comes to us from Algeria, where in the seaside city of Annaba an army of 3,000 women agreed to meet on the beach all exclusively clad in bikinis. Over the course of several days small groups of women had been trying to join the demonstration here and there, but then, thanks to social media, the group grew much larger, enough so that it caught the attention of the press. What was the goal? To take on the pressure women face on Algerian beaches every time they decide to forego a burkini when taking a swim.

Photo: @zakostmane on Twitter

So the protesters proudly donned bathing suits at the beach, taking a stand against the moralizing fundamentalists who run around free of any intervention from the authorities. There are many of them now, and they seem prepared to do anything to make summer even more hellish for all those women who balk at the idea of swimming fully clothed. The presence of men on the beaches who intimidate and threaten Muslim bathers wearing swimsuits, telling them to cover up or leave, has become a serious issue in several North African countries.

On the beaches of Annaba in particular, the trend has been exacerbated by complaints posted on social media. One group even specialized in taking pictures of women on the beach in bikinis and using Facebook to report them to the authorities.

North African women are still very brave.

That Muslim societies have increasingly "Islamicized" social traditions is amply documented not only in photographs from the 1960s – the freedom captured in those shots is incomparable to that of today – but also by the emergence of an ever more aggressive brand of Islam from the Gulf region. That this particular type of Islam is heavily focused on policing women's bodies is apparent from the lack of attention that that numerous campaigns for the equal rights of women are receiving from various governments. Of course, North African women are still very brave and at the forefront of the Muslim world; there is ample evidence of this, not only in civil society but also in academic and political circles.

But back to us, and to why their battle should lead us to reflect more deeply. We should remember initiatives such as this one – taking to the beach in bikinis – when we defend traditions that are full of symbolism, such as the burkini. It's important to remember that behind the burkini, there is both a woman's freedom to choose what to wear, and a strong societal message about the need to control women, which doesn't promote real freedom. That's why today, we're more likely to find a woman in a bikini defending another's right to wear a burkini than the reverse. Whether they're men or women, the champions of the burkini are typically not at the frontlines defending a freedom that they choose not to embrace.


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