CITIES, how the world works

Swimming pools, Muslims, and the burqini in Dandenong

Very interesting opinion piece by Julie Szego in the weekend’s The Age on a women-only Ramadan event at the Dandenong pool, at which all women aged 10 or up must be covered from knees to neck if they are to attend. The comments are a predictable mix of people saying “Try and ask for a similar concession in a Muslim country”, “THIS IS A WAR”, “Why aren’t they assimilating?”, “Islam is the only religion that wants to take over the world” on the one hand, and “it’s an issue of equity”, “some of these women are isolated” and “so, according to your argument, I should be able to turn up to my daughter’s wedding in the nude” on the other. The article, however, does try to analyse the issues: women’s rights, the requirements of public pools to serve whatever community they have living around them, issues of equity, and tolerance. It’s up online, for anyone to read.

It is, however, interesting to read the discussion if, like me, you come from a slightly different angle: I have spent years trying to find a proper sauna and swimming pool in Melbourne, ie one that doesn’t require a neck-to-thigh cover for women. All the therapeutic benefits of sauna are cancelled out by sports swimwear, especially of the full-torso female type, and it is not just beyond unpleasant to sit in 90 degrees covered in lycra, it is also stressful on the body, and potentially dangerous. I could frame it as a discrimination problem: if men can get away with tiny speedos, why aren’t women allowed in topless? But I think it is more probably a prudishness problem (see, for example, the case of a Brisbane sauna-as-art). It all gets much worse when I raise the question of mixed-sex sauna: the immediate, automatic answer this seems to provoke is ‘EWW’, or ‘why would you want people other than your boyfriend to see you naked’?

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Compare and contrast.

Now, two things. First, it must be clear by now that I really cannot see Australia as the land of freedom to show one’s body as one likes. The whole argument of Western secular liberalism which celebrates the body, or even of some Aussie tradition of baring flesh, is simply not correct. There is a reasonable amount of Puritan disavowal of the body going on, or of sexualising all nudity at all times. As the Finnish artists themselves remarked, “there are cultural differences” between Finland and Australia. And, you know, it would be impossible to argue that this prudishness is not in any way connected to religion. The subject of nudity in the Australian society is so touchy that it’s ridiculously hard to even raise it in polite conversation without everyone getting red in the face and starting to crack jokes about paedophiles. (Which is, frankly, ridiculous. As is the oft-made remark about not exposing children to adult nudity. Children, especially toddlers and very young kids, could not care less.) Compare Australia to Scandinavian countries, to Germany, even France or Italy or Croatia, all places in which such scandalous behaviour as topless sunbathing (and swimming) and mixed-sex nude saunas, happens without much drama.

Second, I am always struck by the disingenuousness of packing together “liberal Western values”, “Enlightenment principles”, “feminism” and “women’s dress rules”. Call me bitter, but it is the same as coupling Capitalism with the struggle for workers’ rights; or, not very correct. Sure, there is a geo-historical link, but to say that one of the essentially Western (as opposed to Eastern, Muslim, or less-developed) projects has been equality of sexes is a gross overstatement, conveniently forgetting the fact that the universal suffrage, equal rights, and women’s lib were fights. As Tony Myers writes in the book I’m currently reading:

The [Enlightenment principle of] cogito [ergo sum] is the basis of the centred subject, or, as it is more commonly known, the ‘individual’. The consequences for this model of subjectivity are compelling. For example, until recently, it was generally accepted (by men at least) that only men were masters of themselves. Women, on the other hand, were supposed to be subject to passions and feelings which they could not properly control. That is to say, women were not centred subjects but decentred subjects. They were, therefore, not ‘proper’ individuals and were treated accordingly as second-class citizens, subject to the rule of the masterful men. In fact, the mastery of women formed part of the larger project to dominate the natural world itself (of which women were held to be a part). The results of this project, which is sometimes referred to as the Enlightenment Project, can be witnessed in the devastation wreaked upon the environment. If it seems a little harsh to rebuke a philosophical model with the destruction of the planet, it is perhaps worth remembering that only a subjectivity which thinks it answers exclusively to itself would risk the destruction of nature and not expect to be held accountable for it.

Or, as a great man of Enlightenment said:

Since dependance is a state natural to women, girls feel themselves made to obey; they have, or should have, little freedom… Destined to obey a being as imperfect as man, a woman should learn to suffer – even to suffer injustice – at an early age, and to bear the wrongs of her husband without complaint. You will never reduce boys to the same point; their inner sense of justice rises up and rebels against such injustice, which nature never intended them to tolerate.

(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, IV: 710-11)

But, the point to make here is that Enlightenment did mark the beginning of a quest for knowledge in which nothing was sacred, nothing was beyond questioning. In particular, tradition. If there is any way in which feminism was Rousseau’s baby, it was in the call to question everything. This is why the ultimate paradox of defending the bikini because of our “recognised tradition of secular freedom” is deeply absurd: if there is anything contrary to the spirit of secular inquiry, it is upholding or banning practices based on how well they fit in with our “tradition”.

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I am a little dispirited by the argumentation of both sides in this debate.

On the one hand, I don’t think there is anything particularly logical or reasonable in demanding that women cover from neck to knee in a swimming pool, just like I don’t think there is anything reasonable in having to wear clothes to a sauna. I agree with Szego, it seems to me important to remember that there is a principle at stake here, a principle of the female body not being automatically sexual, not being automatically shameful, and not being required to cover (or bare). Muslim misogyny is misogyny alright. David Gilmore writes, in a sweeping comparative analysis:

Muslim misogyny is really not so much an attack on women as it is a flight from woman “as the source of uncontrollable desires in the male self”. Islamic misogyny, like all others, is a flight from inner conflict over women; misogyny is the psychic consequence to male ambivalance and turmoil. The reification of this struggle that occurs in Islam is similar perhaps to what occurs in Christianity, Hinduim, and Buddhism, except perhaps for the added biographical ingredient of the Prophet’s apotheosis of sexual anxiety into lithurgy. One may say that St Paul and St Augustine played similar roles in forming Christian theology.

(David D. Gilmore, Misogyny: the Male Malady, p.217)

But this treatment of women does correspond to the same sentiments, fears and neuroses in the Australian culture, however secular it may be on paper. There is a corresponding prudishness on the Australian side, that all the talk about “Western liberal values” and “secular principles” cannot hide. In fact, what complicates the debate to such a large degree is precisely the way in which Australian commentators seem themselves unsure of whether there is or isn’t a principle at stake, or whether we are simply debating degrees of exhibitionism. Szego:

The Brimbank spokeswoman explained that [the swimming pools required that the] ”participants should be dressed appropriately, as is expected of a centre used by children and families”.

It seems to me that, until someone remembers what that principle may be, commentators can go hoarse talking about how the burqini “run[s] counter to the West’s more than 500-year struggle for individual freedom” (Szego). In practice, we are bound to get all confused about who is allowed to see how much skin on whom before we all have to blush and go “ooh”.

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3 thoughts on “Swimming pools, Muslims, and the burqini in Dandenong

  1. Ian Woodcock says:

    Spot on. Why the moral panic over what amounts to fancy-dress parties?

    The Age seems to be running a bit of a line on this at the moment, with its promotion of the view that the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act is somehow oppressive and killing (so-called) free speech because so many of the actions brought in its name have been by ethnic and religious minorities. How strange – isn’t that what it was supposed to do – protect the reputations of the less powerful?

    If Szego and anyone else who doesn’t like the way particular public facilities are managed, they can get involved with those constituencies and vote for change. Otherwise it’s gratuitous grandstanding rather than the intelligent self-reflexive cultural analysis that is needed here.

  2. Well, to my mind all of this is a problem to the extent to which fancy-dress parties are a problem – and I’m not the only one who sees balls as a retrograde, politically conservative custom which entrenches a Bourdieuian habitus of the wealthy and privileged, and their pretty girls, etc. But you can’t have one and not the other – and this is where talking about ‘tradition’ as opposed to principle is unhelpful.

    On the other hand, ‘getting involved and voting for change’ is not, in itself, self-reflexive cultural analysis, is it? It’s action… I mean, I understand your point, but there is a difference between managing a facility and reflecting on a philosophical principle. I mean, how do you propose one to go about introducing mixed-sex nude saunas into these public facilities?

  3. Ian Woodcock says:

    By the same process as policy change about the way access to public pools has been achieved over time – have a concrete objective in mind, find out how it can be realised, then take whatever action is necessary to bring it about. In the case of mixed nude bathing and saunas, there would be some councils that may be more amendable to it than others. And in the first instance, it would be a case of finding out-of-hours sessions to minimise impact; once those sessions had become accepted practice, the hours could be extended, by whatever extent the managing organisation can get away with. Quiet encroachment, or tactical incrementalism are possible outcomes, but if the outcry at the initial proposal is significant (as it was with women-only sessions at Brunswick Baths in the 1990s), then it will have to be noisy and strategic. At some point, the timetable for a public pool will be rainbow-coloured, with targeted sessions for those wanting more cover or none, those wanting to play, those doing laps, having lessons, etc. And that would only be an extension of the already multi-coloured timetable that restricts universal access. Most urban pools have many competing demands for uses that could not co-exist whether for practicality or happiness. The principle of public accessibility is argued as though it means universal access at all times, for everyone, to do whatever they like. Alas, it has never been so – after all, pools have opening hours, regardless of what happens in them. The norms of behaviour and dress are just that – cultural norms that have changed with time, varied with place. The furore over a few people wanting to hold a fancy dress party seems to go against the principle of universal access for everyone, to do whatever they like, some of the time, and I haven’t heard a decent argument against it based on principle.

    Should events such as balls, Ramadan swim-fests, or fancy-dress parties be banned because of their potential to reinforce divisions, inequalities and imbalances in society? What about their role in perpetuating poor taste? Perhaps the argument can be made for universal access to public space on principle. Maybe. But if the arguments hold (progressive social agenda, presumably?), then they must also apply to private space, thus violating a fundamental principle of Western liberalism, the right to do as one pleases in private. But then, this right is already curtailed. There are many laws regulating behaviour in private. At the same time, the principle of universal access can also mean the stigmatisation of some in society, such as those who wish to enjoy a mixed nude sauna, or who wish to cover their bodies more than some. Just because it’s OK to wear (or not wear) what you want doesn’t mean someone, somewhere won’t see your choices as subject to some higher authority who shouldn’t have the power to influence your choices (is there anywhere beyond the gaze of someone’s Big Other?).

    In the end, does it matter that much about the principles? It seems a terribly English complaint to remark: “It’s not the burquinis for a couple of hours that bother me so much, it’s the principle of the thing!’. In this case, the line in question is the few centimetres between the bottom of a bikini top and the top of a bikini bottom. Is the edifice of Western liberalism really founded on so trivial a territory?

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