When I was 13 years old, I started to wear the hijab. I had always loved swimming, but had to abandon it until my mom bought the fabric Lycra from Lincraft and stitched me a neon pink and blue two-piece in combination with a bathing cap. The local pools have refused to admit me to wear the outfit, but I was free to go to the beach. Then, go to the beach I made.
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And yet, the feeling that I belonged at the beach, that it was a public space in which I have been “in place”, sometimes eluded me.
The belief that the beach is open to all is deep in Australia. Wendy Garden, curator of last year’s art exhibition On the Beach, wrote that the beaches was “a privileged place in the national psyche”.
“The beach is considered a great equalizer, where racial, social and gender differences are subordinated to the common pursuit of fun in the surf and the sun.”
But like many of our public spaces, the iconic space of the Australian has always preferred a white sensory landscape. This looks and feels, and sounds, and smells as if it belongs, is a function of power relations.
Since last summer, events in Europe have sharpened the potential for conflict on who and what is on the beach. After the terrorist attack in Nice in May, the French mayors banned women from wearing burkinis on the beach in dozens of resorts and promised to defy a court ruling that the bans were illegal. At least one woman has been fined by police for not wearing an outfit that is deemed against “public morality and secularism”.
The wearing of the hijab in the Mediterranean: after the terrorist attack in Nice in May, the French mayors banned women from wearing burkinis on the beach in dozens of resorts. Photo: Baz Ratner/Reuters
None of these displacements have been seriously proposed for Australian beaches, but the atmosphere is far from relaxed.
Talking to Muslim women from various walks of life about their relationship with the beach, what is striking is the way in which their body, specifically their dress, became the main site for the competition on what is considered “in place” and “out of place” on Australian beaches.
Be it a hijab on a rash vest and activewear leggings, or the burkini, it appears that the “Muslim” of this form of dress has the capability to cause to be wary and sometimes hostile reactions.
A lot of women with whom I spoke was a sense that their burkinis and hijabs were viewed as “out of place”. The staring, the double looks, the raised eyebrows.
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“It is this sense that the beach and the hijab don’t mix,” says Sarah, 28 years old, lawyer (all interviewees asked full of names to remember). “People are locked into thinking there is a way to dress and enjoy the beach.”
Samah laughed when she told me that before owning a burkini, she wore tights, a long shirt and hijab to swim in and “lying on the sand.”
“Once, a guy looked at me while we were in the water,” she says. “He shook his head with pity and said: “Isn’t it a shame that you can’t enjoy the sun?’ I laugh and say that I was enjoying the sun.
“Remember, the guy was wearing a long sleeve rashie and swim cap. I had more skin exposed than he has done!”
Growing up in Queensland, the beach has always been a part of Aisha’s life. But when she started to wear the hijab, she says that she has stopped feeling comfortable because of “the way people stare”. She opted for the secluded beaches, in spite of her concerns about swimming in places with no flags or lifeguards. “It was the only way I could feel comfortable to swim,” she said.
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For some, the beach has become the opposite of the singularly the relaxation area of the Australian myth. Hana, a 25-year journalist, has been on the northern beaches of Sydney last month and has interpreted the looks she received as a kind of “disgust” that questioned her right to be on the beach. She says that she has decided to wear her burkini and “watered down” held his swim cap, black tights with shorts on top and long-sleeve rash vest, to make it less “face”.
“I can go anywhere in Australia and I feel so comfortable,” she said, “but the beach is the place that I am afraid because of the reaction I always receive.”
The standards and rules that have been allowed to dominate the sunny beaches of Australia, mean a swimsuit is taken as natural, in the same way as in India, it is quite “natural” for women to wear saris and swim in the ocean. In Egypt, the women to jump in the Mediterranean sea, the port of their hijab or niqab without a problem.
Another woman, Az, says that it is not the work of Muslim women to prove that they belong on the beaches of Australia. What is necessary is to hold the mirror of the society and understand why we deem certain forms of dress are acceptable and others unacceptable.
Yet, many Muslim women do struggle to overcome the attitudes of others. Sana spent years on what she describes as a “journey of confidence” to wear a burkini at the beach. For years, she chose not to wear it because she grew up “with a feeling that only people who dress and look a certain way, have the right to the beach. The beach is a space that, because so many social factors, is synonymous with whiteness, the blond hair, the skin browned by the sun-white skin, and certainly not fully dressed women.”
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It is much more than bikinis v burkinis. Muslim women are especially aware that what they wear on the beach and how they behave can be used as a weapon to a broader culture wars on a mythical “Australian way of life” and “Aussie”. Anisa is married and the father of three children and her concerns about being a “hijabi at the beach” have worsened since the French bans.
“Some women are brave and do not care,” she said, “but I feel so self-conscious and as if people are judging me and my husband because he was wearing “appropriate” swimwear so that I am fully covered.
“You can almost feel how they are viewing us that this Muslim control, and his poor oppressed wife – if only they knew the real dynamics!”
A professor of cultural studies, Suvendini Perera, argued that the veil has become the ultimate marker of cultural difference, and that the Muslim woman is veiled is “a kind of limit-figure of the nation in the values debate”.
It is the consciousness that their bodies are repositories for the other, the narratives and the stereotypes that weigh on all the women that I spoke to. And yet, many Muslim women resist the negative reaction of others to claim their beach space.
Abs tells me it “self-advice” herself: “I constantly tell myself not to worry about what others think of my appearance. This self-council allows me to enjoy me and my time with my children.”
Samar is also resolved to ignore the “stares and weird looks” and “rock the burkini when I’m swimming”.
For Layla, for which the beach of “wicks away the stress and anxiety”, the presumptions that she can not swim and that he is “overwhelmed” by her burkini just to make her laugh.
It is not simply that these women are using the range, despite being positioned as “out of place”. They are seeking to redefine “space”, challenging dominant assumptions and sensory reactions of their presence.
Layla is the relationship with the beach has evolved from a site of resistance to the gaze and comments, to a place where she says she has “trained myself to think that it is my space too much”.