Dear France: I want to be friends, I really do. But you’re making it so very hard, and I’m starting to get the feeling you don’t like me very much.

You know that part in the Harry Potter books where Harry is in Dumbledore’s office and he sees the Pensieve on his desk? And he leans in and suddenly he’s in Dumbledore’s memories?  He’s not visible to others, but is just observing the memory as it unfolds. Well, in sort of a similar fashion, today you’re invited into my own Pensieve to observe a memory of my own. Excited?

The setting is a summer about 12 years ago when a good friend came to visit for a couple of months.  One painfully warm day,  we felt bored of playing Scrabble endlessly and headed to the pool to cool off. That wasn’t a particularly unusual occurrence-though I wasn’t on a swim team or anything, I did enjoy my trips to the local pool. It was the first time we had gone together though, and that day when my friend changed into a a head to toe wetsuit type outfit, she was laughed at, stared at, and rudely approached. But her eyes became a bit shiny, her chin a bit more determined, and she went swimming anyway, acted like it didn’t matter that people were gathering to look at us, and for all intents and purposes, behaved like she was enjoying our aquatic adventure.

I was in complete awe of her bravery, but I found the craziness around us shocking. I didn’t cover my hair then, but had started to want swim gear that was a bit more ‘covering, and the reactions of others to simple differences in swim gear frightened me. After that, I felt sure I didn’t want to return to the pool and experiment with new swim styles.  And indeed I didn’t go back.

Several years later though, this summer I re-entered the pool because I’ve been wanting to learn to kayak and sail, and it made sense to become comfortable again in the water. Before I even dipped a toe though, I debated endlessly with myself, staff in local swim shops, facebook friends, my family, and with really everyone I know, about the all important question: what should I wear while swimming?

What would be swimming appropriate, allow me to be comfortable, and yet ensure I wouldn’t be attacked by other swimmers?

Did I actually think I would be attacked at the UBC pool?  No. But being glared at isn’t pleasant either, and I didn’t want to risk that possibility. I eventually figured it out, so this isn’t a story of aquatic tragedy, but it does highlight a tension many people experience: the tension of wanting to follow a dress code, but also feeling like you need to pick something that won’t raise the attention of others and put you in the way in the way of Scary People.

So when I read about the case of a woman in France who was prevented from entering the pool in her swimsuit (basically made of wetsuit type material but it comes with a headcovering) I was incensed. Why do people care so much about what others wear?

The whole story reminded me of the case a few years ago of Manal Omar, a senior manager at an international NGO at the time, who raised a stir at a pool in Oxford when she tried to go swimming. and generated some seriously hateful online commentary, and a ridiculous number of ‘omigosh why don’t they integrate’ sort of articles. Her response in The Guardian is one of my all time favourite reads.

This part is particularly powerful.

Looking back, what disturbed me the most about the debate was that my very identity was reduced to a cluster of cliches about Muslim women. I was painted in broad strokes as an oppressed, unstable Muslim woman. I was made invisible, an object of ridicule and debate, with no opinion or independent thoughts. The fact that I had dedicated the past 10 years to working on women’s issues on a global level, led a delegation of American women into Afghanistan in 2003, and put my life on the line in Iraq struggling for women’s constitutional rights were clearly beyond anyone’s imagination. The part of my life where I had the opportunity of meeting leading women from Queen Rania of Jordan to Hillary Clinton was erased.

And the France and Oxford cases aren’t isolated incidents, these are just cases that have received media attention.

And while I’d love to chatter on about why this is so very problematic,  Shabana Mir’s article titled “The Deadly Burqini, Or, What Exactly is an “Islamic Swimsuit”?” over at “Religion Dispatches” is seriously brilliant, and you should read that instead. And actually, you should read everything she writes, because her work is amazing. (I’ve just discovered her articles and I’m a bit in love).

My favourite, favourite  favourite part:

Strictly speaking, the liberators of Muslim women ought to jump up and down in joy if these oppressed women make it as far as a co-ed public pool. They’ll get some exercise; they’ll spend some time developing physical strength away from their dark-browed swarthy bad-tempered fathers and husbands. The endorphins and resulting euphoria might result in a sense of physical and emotional freedom. What could be better? Hell, they might make it as far as throwing off their yoke and joining the ranks of the liberated.

Swimming is probably the best form of cardiovascular exercise for almost everyone, including individuals with depression, obesity, arthritis, diabetes, and various age-related ailments. Unlike jogging, it does not cause strain to your joints. Water calms you. Swimming makes you happy. Come, now, don’t those poor backward Muslim women need some health and happiness?

Teehee. That just makes me happy enough to schedule my next pool session soon. And really, perhaps that is the best way to respond to crazy intolerance.  Correct prejudices when you can, challenge assumptions, remind others that you indeed are capable of defining the trajectory of your life and don’t need to be saved from yourself, but also know when to let things go. Recognise when a conversation has become not the clarifying of assumptions, but you wasting precious minutes and hours of a finite life.  And learn when to shield yourself from hatred and toxic spaces.

Above all though, ensure that above all the focus of your life is laughter and creating and dreaming and striving for excellence and reaching out to others, and ultimately living life in a way that would make Thoreau proud, because otherwise the ‘neatly labelled but unrepresentative’ boxes others want to put you in will suffocate you.

Doing all this in the context of daily life though, is a work in progress.

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Shagufta is a UBC Political Science graduate with a passion for interdisciplinary thinking, writing, travel, reading, tea, and interesting conversations. She hopes to combine all of these things in her life work someday. For now though, she studies social policy and planning at the University of Toronto and shares her adventures in and out of the classroom at

6 Responses to “Dear France: I want to be friends, I really do. But you’re making it so very hard, and I’m starting to get the feeling you don’t like me very much.”

  1. Ashish

    Laws that are only mandatory for a specific, identifiable, group of people in society makes people nervous and skeptical. Laws that seem to be stricter on a minority or the disempowered than on those in positions of authority make those laws even more suspect. There are too many examples in history of oppressive laws being used to separate, isolate, or harm identifiable minorities for people not to see other laws in that context of past failures to act.

    The main reason that the hijab is viewed with such skepticism is because of the manner it is enforced on the Arabian Peninsula. Whether it is the influence of wahabiasm or not – in many countries on the peninsula – the treatment of local women who choose not to wear the hijab is terrible. There are women (even women who have acquired political influence) in those countries who argue for the laws that penalize women who refuse to wear the hijab with fines, jail, or worse. To feminists in the west – it sounds like history repeating itself from the suffrage movement, victorian era, and civil rights movement. In those times, members of the oppressed group argued in favor of the majority and were used, with great effect, by the majority as tools against those movements for change.

    Women in Indonesia, Bangladesh, and India, while avoiding codified rules on dress, face de facto enforcement of the hijab. In India, women were attacked with acid for not wearing the hijab causing a sudden change in the area where women suddenly “chose” to wear the hijab. In Iraq, 100 women were slain two years ago for not wearing the hijab. Hamas harassed women in Palestine who chose other dress. It is similar to how the caste system is illegal in India but few would say India is close to being free of the caste system. In many areas it is still violently enforced.

    North America and Europe both have Muslim communities that are more tolerant of muslim women not wearing the hijab and those that are intolerant. While non-muslim communities also have expectations of dress – what creates the distinction in feminist’s minds is the type of expectation and the way it is enforced. Feminists like dress codes where women can wear what men wear without facing repercussions. A t-shirt and jeans can be found equally on men and women. Men can’t really wear skirts unless they are scottish but feminists don’t mind that double standard as much 😛 Enforcement is a matter of degrees. Obviously violence or abuse towards women who choose a dress code is unacceptable. Community based pressure for dress exists everywhere but the degree to which it limits what women can do, based on their choice, is part of what feminists would be concerned about.

    All of this makes the hijab a matter of legitimate concern for feminists and all people.

  2. Ashish

    Part of the post didn’t fit I think hehe.

    So the question becomes – how do we deal with a situation that represents both a part of the Qur’an and a tool of oppression against women in many countries? When women wear a head scarf – it doesn’t come with a helpful post-it note that says “oppressed” or “already liberated, this is my choice, move on.” Without helpful post-it notes, people may take the indication of harm, not the proof of harm, as their call to action. To them – it is almost like you came to the swimming pool with a bruise on your head and they are trying to figure out whether you were abused or whether you just like playing soccer.

    You probably have to expect at least some glances if you wear a burqini. Anyone who wears anything different from the norm is going to get a second glance. Some people specifically wear something different to get that second glance 😉 That’s how the fashion industry makes its money. What you shouldn’t have to suffer is a look of contempt (from Islamophobes) or continued suspicion.

    With regards to what to wear – there was a Time article I found that discussed burqinis and two designers who have made their own swimsuits.,9171,1645145,00.html – they look interesting!

  3. Nicholas FitzGerald

    Wow – excellent post and equally excellent response.

    Shagufta – I have to credit you with really opening my eyes on this issue. I must admit that my knee jerk reaction to headscarves has always been to assume that the individual was somehow compelled to wear it, either directly or indirectly. You’ve really shown me how presumptuous this assumption is and made me appreciate that someone could make this individual choice even after knowing all the “facts”. It brings to mind other cases of women facing condemnation for their choices which run contrary to the “feminist ideal” – for instance choosing to stay at home with children rather than pursuing a career, or choosing to work in the sex industry. The take home message should be that true “liberation” means the freedom to choose *whatever* role the individual wishes for themselves.

    However where I think you go to far is in condemning anyone who reacts with suspicion or confusion at you choice of dress. As Ashish rightfully points out, headscarves undeniably ARE used as a means of oppression in many societies, and many women who wear them do not do so entirely out of their own free will. These cases are far more visible, and people are right for wanting to put an end to this abuse. If, then, this causes people to overreact, or make assumptions this is unfortunate and I’m sure very aggravating for you personally you have to admit that their hearts are in the right place.

    I fully agree that turning someone away from a swimming pool for their choice of dress in inexcusable so I agree with the bulk of this post. However I think in some of your past posts you go too far in condemning those who may just be trying to help – however misdirected this help may be.

  4. Shagufta Pasta


    Thanks for the comments! This piece was more about swimming, the assumptions people make, and how at the end of the day, you can’t allow the fact that some people will view your choices with suspicion to interfere with your daily life.

    The comments though, address points that I think are a bit different (and a few of the points mentioned here have been discussed over at the “Etiquette Guide” comments area so might not respond to everyone here)

    So, I’m glad the piece was liked, and agree that you can’t ignore the fact that some women don’t choose to cover, and think it’s scary when they are forced to do so. Of course one can’t say that all women who wear the hijab categorically make that choice on their own. And is it completely and utterly unacceptable for someone to have acid thrown in their face for not wearing the hijab? Yes, unequivocally so.

    The concept I’m introducing is that surprise! covered women and uncovered women can be, and indeed are, feminists too. And not realising and understanding that fact, leads to misunderstandings in how to translate one’s zeal for helping the poor muslim women into actual productive action.

    My comments are not directed to anyone specifically (Nick I’m so glad you felt the piece was an eye opener and actually said yay! out loud when I read yr take home message!), but I do want to emphasize that when one feels sad/concerned/anxious about oppression, is important to realise there are amazing women and men working in their own communities worldwide saying:

    “We need allies not saviours. We need people to stand up with us and support our struggles, because guess what world, we are capable. If there are barriers to our voices being heard, help us remove those barriers. Don’t assume you know what is best for us. And don’t speak for us, because um, we’re actually pretty aware of what challenges and struggles we face. Ask us what we need, and then work side by side with us. Help us improve the multitude of factors that impact our lives: access to education,health care, meaningful employment etc and challenge policies that limit what our lives can be.

    But don’t make the assumption that particular dress codes and lives are oppressive because muslim women don’t have post it notes attached to their scarves. Because when that’s the only issue you focus on, it’s easy to forget that removing dress doesn’t help much if no other aspect of life has improved at the same time. And it’s also arrogant to assume that if individuals don’t think it’s oppressive to dress in particular ways, that they simply haven’t understood their choices well enough. It’s arrogant for the interpretation that covering is oppressive to be one’s default understanding.

    World, when you project onto us your assumption that our lives are oppressive and then operate as though that assumption was solid truth, you remove the possibility of actually learning from the countless women who live within north america and europe who don’t fit the labels you put on them.”

    (Through a variety of mediums and channels, the above gets said a lot, but I don’t think we actually hear and understand this message often enough)

    For me, I genuinely don’t understand the thought process where one concludes that it’s socially acceptable to approach a stranger about their life choices. It’s not offensive, it’s just plain odd that there is a thought process that occurs where the conclusion is, yes “the best way for me express my concern about those people is to berate that individual over there”. And it’s bizarre how often people reach that conclusion.

    If my posts seem pointed, it’s because I want people to learn how to help. (If I was to make a wish for TEDxTerry Talks, that would be it..understand that there is a good way and a bad way to express concern, and that some people are so awkward in their interactions, they either have no impact, or worse yet, harm others) This is similar to conversations around the ethics of travel and international volunteering. Is it bad to go overseas? No, but there is a wrong way to aid others, and it’s imperative one learns what ineffectual/harmful volunteering looks like.

    And this isn’t an Islam specific argument. This is the substance of post colonial feminism.

    Think Gayatri Spivak’s essay: “Can the Subaltern speak?” and Chandra Mohanty’s essay “Under Western Eyes”.

  5. Maria

    First of all, this is a really interesting post. After reading the original story a while back, I was interested in what people who were Muslim thought of the issue. I would agree with many of the things you wrote, Shagufta, I also have to admit that my reflex is to feel sympathy for women wearing a burquini or a burka or a hijab- simply because I can’t identify with the desire to wear one, and because I do associate them with the oppression of women. I don’t think I am alone in this- as Ashish pointed out so eloquently, those things are associated with oppression, and I think that the consequence is that people do make judgments about what wearing a hijab, for instance, connotes. Most of the women I’ve met who wear burkas or headscarves don’t feel that it is their choice- they feel that it is something that they must do. That is not to say, of course, that these women are not feminists, or that they do not believe in equality. I think that the thing that seems so odd, or perhaps contradictory, to me is why women who are independent and who are feminists and fight for women’s rights do choose to wear a burka or a burqini.

    I have always felt that there is a double standard when it comes to what men and women have to wear for religion. While I recognize that wearing any piece of clothing is, or can be, a personal choice, a part of me wonders why women fighting for independence continue to support a garment that, as I see it, was invented by men to oppress women. Isn’t this upholding the double standard? From my (albeit limited and potentially incorrect) knowledge, Muslim women did not always have to wear a hijab or cover up- it was a custom that was implemented not so long ago, and was not something that was initially even a part of the religion. If this is, in fact, true, then why do some women choose to wear a burka or a burqini or a hijab? I’ve always been really curious about this, but haven’t really ever asked, as I know that the reasons can be intensely personal.

  6. Shagufta Pasta

    Hi Maria,

    Thanks for your comments!
    I do understand what you’re saying, and my response, (and my response every time I have this conversation) is that it’s important to be aware and understand that one’s own feelings about a practice might not correspond to the way others feel about it, understand it, engage with it and relate to it. This relates to the hijab, but really is true about a lot of things-I was in an office last week and saw a great card that said something along the lines of “just because the world of others might not look like your own, doesn’t mean they are wrong.”

    In other words, if the idea of covering conjurs up the idea of oppression in one’s mind, is important to be aware that that thought might not relate to actual lived experience.

    So…fight the sympathy reflex! It might be totally unwarranted, and you might be making uncalled for associations. Yes there are women who choose/would prefer not to cover, but there are loads and loads of women who do, and find it positive, and not associated it with an oppressive lifestyle. That’s why you find women who self identify as feminists, and who don’t feel there is anything contradictory about their lives.

    The challenge of dialogue and interdisciplinary spaces then is to be able to put our own ideas aside and listen. A highly recommended book is called “Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil: Challenging Historical and Modern Stereotypes” by Katherine Bullock.
    Re the hijab, (and I preface the following paragraph saying I’m not, not, not opening up space for theological debates on terry. It’s just not the right space) it is something that is mentioned in the Quran, and the verse that discusses the hijab is prefaced by a verse that talks about male modesty. So there is discussion on both sides.

    Women wear the hijab for a variety of reasons, some that are extremely individual and some that are broader and more generally shared. You’ll find people who wear it because they believe it is a required part of the faith, and they find it to be an important way to be mindful of spiritual growth and goals on a daily basis, and also that it’s handy being ready to pray or read the Quran at all times (there are five daily prayers). You’ll also find people who prefer not being judged on personal appearances (and the headscarf is often accompanied by loose dress) and find it is personally important to be able to control what they allow others to see of them.

    You’ll also find women who love being greeted by strangers and wear it as a ‘yay i’m muslim’ kind of identifier. Some people just love the fashion of pretty sparkly scarves. Really there are a lot of diff reasons, and like you said, it’s a very personal process. The Quranic injunction is definitely a huge reason though and doesn’t exclude the other reasons either. (or others not mentioned here)

    And just to reiterate, we’re not going to do a yes it is required, no it isn’t, what does the quran mean sort of conversation. The emphasis here is on the challenges of dialogue and interdisciplinarity.

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