There are so very many ways to offend at the swimming pool, most of them having to do with revealing too much skin -- I'm looking at you, Mr. Micro-Trunks -- but a Muslim woman in France recently got the boot from her local chlorinated swimming hole for being too modest. The woman, identified only as Carole, went for a dip in her burqini, a swimsuit that covers all but the face, hands and feet. It looks like a wetsuit worn under a loose water-repellant skirt and has even been used by some Muslim lifeguards in Australia. The staff confronted her with hygiene concerns and said that "swimming while clothed" would not be allowed, according to the pool manager. "Quite simply, this is segregation," Carole told Le Parisien newspaper. "I will fight to try to change things. And if I see that the battle is lost, I cannot rule out leaving France."
Many would be happy to see her go. Earlier this summer, President Nicolas Sarkozy declared the burqa a prison -- acknowledging no difference between forced and elected veiling -- and said it was unwelcome in France; a special government commission is currently discussing an all-out ban. This pool incident is just the latest skirmish in an ongoing fight in the country over Muslim women's dress. Particularly relevant is a French anti-immigration poster from the 1990's that juxtaposed iconic topless sunbathing beauties with the specter of burqa-clad women overtaking the country's beaches in 2010. That prophesy hasn't exactly panned out: The Côte d'Azur is still dominated by bronzed skin rather than drab all-encompassing fabric.
That isn't to say that French swimwear fashions haven't changed, though: As Amy Benfer wrote last month, some young feminists are rebelling against topless tradition, instead donning relatively modest bikinis and one-pieces. They didn't have to fight for the right to peel off their tops, as their feminist forebears did in the 60s and 70s. Going topless meant one thing then and means another now. As Christophe Granger, author of a book about the cultural history of French beaches, told the Guardian, it's become "less about women feeling at ease and free" and more about "the harsh cult of the body beautiful, where no imperfection is tolerated." For some young French women, covering up feels more empowering than stripping down; the same could certainly be said about some of the country's Muslim women. Clearly, there is a gaping cultural chasm between covered breasts at the beach and concealed hair and limbs at the pool -- but such is the extreme range of women's experiences of their own bodies and dress.
What's so unfortunate is that individual experiences aren't relevant in this case. This is a culture war and women's bodies are merely the battleground.