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Upper West Side: Reflections on the Burkini and the Male Gaze

Susan Reimer-Torn
September 14, 2016

FRANCE’S CONTROVERSIAL BAN on beach burkinis has been overturned by the French courts. But Nicholas Sarkozy, the increasingly rightwing presidential hopeful and has-been, vows to reinstate this dress code. Is it all about upholding secular values and overt anti-Islamic feelings? Or might something else be subtly at play?

During the two decades I lived in France, I was tutored by my Parisian peers in the womanly art of catching and keeping, tempting and taming the male gaze. It was a time-honored component of coquetry, a cherished national sport. I learned to vamp across many a polished floor in stilettos without snagging my stockings on the fine gold chains encircling my ankles. I learned which was the best lingerie to wear under transparent silks and what style bra best set off plunging necklines to fetching effect.

I was not a high-class escort or an underwear model. Nor was I unusual. I spent those years as a respected journalist, a loving wife, and devoted mother. The French women who inspired this shame-free preoccupation with frankly sexualized costume were also serious, productive people -- they were artists, politicians, lawyers, and cultural critics. They had husbands with influential positions, impeccably-groomed children, in some cases, lovers and always staunchly bourgeois lives. American feminist friends who came looking for some French brand of unadorned women with raised consciousness a la Simone de Beauvoir found instead ambitious women cultivating their seductive charms as a source of personal power.

I did not need to overcome much aversion to the practice. The truth is I was delighted by the opportunity to dress up and draw appreciative looks. Unapologetic visibility was to me an act of radical freedom: As an escapee from an Orthodox upbringing, I relished a sophisticated culture which encouraged, rather than censured, unfettered variations on the eternal theme of provocative female allure.

It has taken many years -- and most recently this summer’s brouhaha over the burkini -- for me to realize how subtly fettered, in retrospect, we women truly were.

A woman’s submission to the male gaze is seamlessly integrated into the social norms of France. A man’s exercise of this gaze is an unspoken and assumed privilege. What is more, a man can impose his right to make distinctions between what of woman flesh he does -- and does not -- want to see.

This dictatorial discretion was never better illustrated for me than on the spring afternoon I decided to take my first-born baby out for some sunshine, pausing to rest on a bench on the well-appointed, tree-lined Avenue Foch. I was not particularly bothered by that avenue’s constant parade of over-painted women for costly hire, one more brazen than the next in her exhibition of flesh. But at one point, I needed to discreetly breastfeed my hungry newborn. Imagine my surprise when a disapproving policeman asked me to immediately remedy my indecent exposure!
cpuzicuwcaewhzfAheda Zanetti's Burqini swim suits.THE BURKINI is an in-your-face refusal of the ubiquitous prerogatives of the male gaze. It is a repudiation of a right that has never been formally granted but has always been assumed. It is a right that is fundamental to the French way of life.

As is well known, objections to the burkini stem from France’s preoccupation with secular enlightenment, its obsessive worship of reason and utter horreur of ostentatious religious expression, along with its frank and elitist rejection of multicultural heterogeneity. All of these have been justly evoked to explain a deep cultural aversion to the sight of Moslem women swathed in layers of clothing on a Riviera beach. But to get the full picture you have to add a concern, however inchoate, for the erosion of an unwritten but cherished male-dominant principle regarding aesthetics and the proper usage of public space. This explains why Forward editor Jane Eisner is correct when she writes, “It’s not French not to show a lot of skin.”

Ironically, it is the presumably enlightened French police who are photographed insisting that a woman minding her own business on a public beach strip off her layers. It is a woman from a supposedly repressed society who now represents her gender’s right to choose how to dress. It is the subjugated Moslem woman who is calling attention to a degrading cultural assumption while we so-called liberated secularists have never thought to protest playing the game. A woman in a burkini is an unwanted visual paradox: On one level she seems to represent woman oppressed. But on another more threatening level, she is a woman saying no to a status quo that has never before really been questioned.

EVER SINCE the revelations of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandals, the French elite has been forced to take a closer look at a social malaise from which they would much prefer to avert their gaze. After all, DSK institutionalized his orgiastic libertinage within the innermost circles of the most “liberale” of partying Socialists: His requisitioned chateaus had never hosted more progressive revelers. But with his indictment, the pact of silence was finally broken, and many well-placed women testified for the first time to feeling forced to join the partouze or risk ostracism for prudery.

France is willing to own its sense of Gallic superiority, its disdain for religion and even its colonialist noblesse oblige. It is not, however, willing to see itself as a society that coerces its women.The sight of a woman in a burkini on a beach in full sunlight makes visual a kind of hypocrisy that most French people, and certainly most men, would prefer to keep hidden.

So the ban on the burkini was overturned by the court -- France is, after all, a self-respecting, high-functioning democracy -- but Sarkozy is swaggering about bringing the ban back in full force. At the time of his inauguration, nude photos of his undeniably alluring wife, Carla Bruni, were splashed all over the European tabloids with the intent to shame. The new president exuded far more pride than outrage, thus making official the alpha male’s right to determine the acceptable boundaries of female flesh on public display.

With summer’s end, other manifestations of cultural divides will take centerstage. We have seen that you can lift the burkini ban. But can we ever really elevate the male gaze?

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.