I am old enough to remember the 1960’s and the debate then about the Bikini, mind you I was a kid then but nonetheless I paid attention to what was going on around me.
Then society in general did not approve of such an apparel, this also included pants for women, morality came up a lot in the conversation then, this type of clothing was risqué. Up until the 1960 women who according to societal norms had to wear skirts or dresses. In the mid 1950’s some fashion designers brought out pants for women to wear. This was quite revolutionary and not really the norm of what was acceptable then in society. But in large metropolitan centres like NYC and in Los Angeles it was seen among the rich and the famous who could flout society’s conventions.
Some movies also started to show women wearing pants, though such women were always portrayed as independent, upper middle-class and sporty, going to the beach or at some party around the swimming pool of their expensive homes, the Country Club set. In Canada you would really have to wait until the mid 1960’s to see such changes and even then it was frown upon. For those of you who remember The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson from 1962-1992, he started to mention almost as a provocation to his audience that if the Bikini was now Ok for prudish American society, well look at Saint-Tropez the women are topless. This was in the 1970’s and it was the subject of much comment and hilarity on his show.
So we now jump forward to today, since 1979 when the Shah of Iran left ”on vacation” due to the Iranian revolution under the Ayatollahs who imposed on Iranian women a strict dressing code which shocked Western countries and with the strong migration from Middle-Eastern countries since 2000 and the war in Afghanistan, the public through much media hoopla has become very aware of how women wear for various reasons in many countries with so called Islamic values various veils. The other question is if this is a religious requirement, on that topic a lot of misinformation exist and the worst convoluted stories circulate, much is hearsay and not based on fact.
I lived for 8 years on various countries in the Middle-East, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. I also visited Iran in 2002. When people in Canada would speak to me about the Middle-East the one remark that always came up was how, 1. women could not drive a car and 2. how they had to cover up. In most cases people were thinking of Saudi Arabia and assumed that all other countries where Islam was the majority religion must be the same. I quickly learned that it was pointless to say that this was not the case, that each country was very different and societies were complex with their own history and evolution. What I learned was that people had their prejudice and would not be dissuaded.
If it is true that I saw some Hijabs in Egypt and less so in Syria or Jordan, I did not see them often in other countries like Lebanon. In Iran, women wore usually a kind of lomg scarf over their hair. I also saw and this was more a function of social standing, women from poor neighbourhood wearing more conservative dress than the more affluent women, usually these women would wear a chador.
Unfortunately in Canada the message is broad and general and makes no distinctions. It does not try to understand how societies far from us function in a context far removed from our own experience. Canadians do not always understand that various cultures in other continents function much differently than ours and do not care for what we think. We do make a lot of assumptions, clothes send signals in any society, clothes can be the basis for prejudice, racism, intolerance and discrimination.
Some in our society would like to dictate to others how to dress and behave for the sake of imposing a point of view as the correct one. You will hear comments on so call Muslim dress but in general in Canada we have not taken the French position on this matter which is now bordering on the ludicrous. A message of inclusiveness is more the Canadian norm.
With all the talk this Summer about France and Europe not adapting well to their changing societies. In France with politicians wrapping themselves in the French Flag and going on about Laicité and secular principles, what I take from that is how France has never got over its lost of prestige and influence in the World since September 1939. How it did not make the necessary effort to integrate its various ethnic population from former French Colonies. How the war in Algeria and the independence of that country was never accepted by the French. How they still try to pull political-economic strings in the Levant and in Africa. France does have the largest Muslim population in Europe but would like you to believe otherwise in the image it present of itself. So the latest spat on beach wear in various towns in France is the cherry on the cake. The social problems in France and many European countries are not new and stem from historical circumstances which we in Canada are free.
In Canada women in the RCMP can wear a hijab with their regulation uniform. There has not been much notice in the newspapers. Already and for 30 years now Sikh men can wear their turban as long as it is regulation colour with their police uniform. In many ways Canada has taken a more mature approach to this topic. The general idea is that women can wear what they want, the question is why should it bother anyone. Society is not being threatened in any way by people’s dress, it was not in the 1960’s with the mini skirt or the bikini or women’s pants and it is not now.
We did have the spat during the Harper Regime with the issue of face covering or Niqab in Courts of Law and during Citizenship Ceremony where people have to take an Oath in order to become Citizens or when giving testimony in Court. The rule is and this was not sufficiently explained that any women who wanted to take her Oath of Citizenship could do so in private, if wearing of the Niqab was an issue for them, the Judge can see her face and administer the Oath. In this instance the Harper Regime made quite a lot of hullabaloo about the whole affair to please its extreme right wing base, that is behind us now.
All this to say that if we think of ourselves as a mature open society, intent on not repeating the errors of the past, we have to get over these dress behaviour hysterics and stop dictating what can and cannot be acceptable in women’s dress on the street. Just because it bothers or offends one person or a group based on so called modern personal views or belief.
The other day at Brackley Beach I did notice a women wearing a Burkini swimming. My concern was the severe undertow on the North side of the Island and I wondered if she was aware of the warning signs and the danger. There were some people on the beach but it is quite a long beach many kilometres long and many parts are deserted with no lifeguard in sight. She was quite far from the shore and I hoped she would be ok. She did make it safely back to shore and then went to sit with her husband who was reading. I know that in France or elsewhere in Europe the reaction would have been quite different.