25th Sep 2023


Burkinis and 'soul caps' - policing Olympic women back in fashion

Forget football, hockey and cricket: policing what women wear at work and at play is the world's most popular sport.

It always has been. But the sexist and racist obsession with how women cover their head and their bodies has reached new heights in the summer of 2021.

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  • Trying to instruct women on what to wear is the world's all-time favourite obsession

Partly it's the season. As women head to the beach or swimming pools across Europe, some daring to wear the much-feared burkini, there's the traditional explosion of anger at Muslim women's assault on the "European Way of Life".

Partly it is the Olympics where women athletes have grabbed the spotlight and represent over 50 percent of team members from Canada, China, Australia, Britain and America.

And partly it is good, old-fashioned pre-electoral Islamophobic muscle-flexing as French and other European politicians try to win votes by taking swipes at their allegedly separatist Muslim citizens, with special venom directed at women who wear the much-hated headscarf.

Whatever the reason, trying to instruct women on what to wear is the world's all-time favourite obsession.

Unlike other sports, it is not limited to any country and no special join-up qualifications are required. There are no fixed rules. Anyone can criticise, condone and codify women's apparel.

The game is inclusive, bringing together an assorted collection of voyeurs, misogynists, racists, bigots, religious fanatics and culture warriors – but also feminists and other equality campaigners.

It welcomes the educated and the less so, the rich and the struggling. Economic inequalities are ignored and looks don't matter.

No special training is required to start policing women's attire although some coaching and access to a smart phone can make it more exciting and fun.

Common fixation

Above all, it transcends bitter political divides. Democrats and autocrats, liberals and illiberals, progressives and conservatives may disagree on everything else but they share a common fixation on determining women's sartorial choices.

True, men also have to adhere to societal dress codes. But the rules seem pretty basic: wear a clean top, decent trousers, not-too scruffy shoes and it's sorted.

There are occasional snide comments on British prime minister Boris Johnson's rumpled 'look' and the way male politicians dress. Remember when Barack Obama scandalised his critics by wearing a tan-coloured suit?

But the vitriol directed at his wife, Michelle, for daring to bare her arms or attacks on Hillary Clinton for donning "pantsuits" were much meaner.

Why on earth should holy men, politicians, judges, journalists and business leaders pass judgement on their male counterparts when there are so many women to condemn?

Global attention has long focused on the challenges facing women in Saudi Arabia and Iran, two of the countries where Muslim male leaders love to legislate on female clothes and conduct.

Not to be outdone, many of their European counterparts and a few pristinely-white and Western institutions like the French National Assembly and the European Court of Justice, as well international sports federations, are joining the fray.

Questioning patriarchy, power and privilege has never been easy. As European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen learned through "sofa gate", even allegedly "woke" male colleagues can morph into entitled Alpha males when pride calls.


But spoiler alert: women are fighting back. Just like they did with the #MeToo movement which brought down an army of male predators, women are taking to the streets, to the courts and to the ballot boxes to demand an end to male sartorial diktat.

Testing sexist rules on 'feminity', the Norwegian beach handball team recently demanded that their sports attire be changed to spandex shorts instead of bikini bottoms. They were fined but change is in the air.

German female gymnasts won accolades when they donned full-body leotards at the Olympics to protest against the "sexualisation" of their sport.

And anger – including from a few MEPs – has been directed at the International Swimming Federation for refusing to approve special "soul" swim caps designed for Black women athletes. A review of the ban is under discussion.

Human rights activists have warned there will be increased anti-Muslim violence, harassment and stigmatisation in the wake of the recent French legislation which further restricts the wearing of headscarves.

They also fear the recent European Court of Justice ruling which allows employers to ban workers from wearing any visible sign of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs in order to present themselves "in a neutral manner to customers or to prevent social conflicts", will increase workplace racism and discrimination.

The plucky female athletes have drawn praise from feminists of all race and religions and from women across Europe. There is also sympathy in Europe for women targeted by restrictive laws in Muslim countries.

That solidarity dries up pretty fast, however, when Muslim European women are involved. This indifference is self-defeating, however.

Europe's struggle to build a true Union of Equality requires collective action and coalition building, not fragmentation and competition on racial and religious grounds.

Selective outrage over patriarchal divide and rule strategies works against the global struggle for gender equality.

So then why be surprised that shaming and policing women's bodies and attire is gaining ever more traction as the world's favourite sport?

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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