Being The Bikini in a Sea of Burkinis

As I scrolled through opinion articles on the Burkini controversy on French beaches with a grin or an angry grunt depending on the article, I was nervously packing and unpacking a suitcase in the corner of my bedroom. I was going to be conducting PhD research on women’s rights in the Arab Gulf in Doha, Qatar, and I was completely at a loss for what clothing to pack. More than the regular girly debate (just how many high heels I might for my friend’s bachelorette weekend?!) I was concerned about respectful, even lawful clothing for my time as a visiting researcher at Qatar’s conservative national university in 102-112 degree heat. I had been instructed to dress modestly, covering from collarbone to wrist to ankle, but told that other tourist areas and hotels would be much more lenient to western-wear.

After finally deciding on a comfortable set of light but body-covering clothing, I agonized on a last decision. Should I bring my bikini? I’d be staying in a Western hotel with a pool where I understood there were no requirements for modest dress, but wouldn’t a one-piece be more comfortable? Rushed without time to purchase more modest swimwear—and maybe with a bit of internal defiance – I stuffed my bikini into my suitcase and rushed myself to the airport.

Doha is a bizarre mix of commercialism, glitz, and conservatism. Doha initially became the capital city of Qatar in 1971, when Qatar gained independence from the British. Although similar to the popular tourist destination that is the Emirati city of Dubai, Doha has a special character – aiming on the one hand to become a commercial and financial hub, Doha is home to Education City, an area devoted to research and education home to American campuses abroad, and invests heavily in education and culture. The Qatari government has always aimed to develop Doha has a global city with a renowned reputation, host previously to the Asian games and soon-to-be host to the World Cup (a project you are sure to be reminded of every moment in Qatar, with roads riddled with construction works devoted to the upcoming games).

Doha tows a difficult line in maintaining its conservative identity based on Islamic law while opening up to international visitors and residents – in fact, the population of Doha is comprised primarily of expatriates, with Qatari nationals forming a minority. The Qatari nationals are subject to the strict laws of the Emir which include requirements for modest dress, prohibition of alcohol and ‘lewd sexual acts,’ laws against insulting of God or the Emir included, many punishable by fines and/ or imprisonment. Public displays of affection are illegal, and unmarried women and men do not touch or shake hands in public. Most local Qataris wear national dress – white robes and special local headcoverings for the men (throbe), black robes covering body and hair for the women (abaya and shayla), some with the face covered (niqab) ― and expatriates are reminded in malls and public areas with signs to dress modestly out of respect. The Gulf States (Kuwat, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Oman) all follow a similar conservative traditions, where women mainly cover most of their bodies completely in black robing. These customs about modesty are said to stem from Quranic teaching, that women “should not display their beauty except what is apparent…” (Q 24:30- 31 ).

My days in Doha were filled with wonderful experiences – beautiful sights and sounds, and kind people, and glimpses of a unique and primarily well-preserved culture in an otherwise cosmopolitan city. Due to the aforementioned demographics, it was difficult to get a glimpse of a local Qatari at times – but in the less-touristy areas, and, particular, in the national university where I was hosted, I finally felt surrounded by local people and culture. It was here that I began to feel nervous, as the beating sun wouldn’t abate and I quickly lifted my skirt or adjusted by scarf for air, I noticed odd stares. As I noticed women whisked in and out of university halls out of air conditioned vehicles and into the heat, fully covered in black abaya robes, I was amazed at their stoicism in the heat, and embarrassed of my sweaty, weak state in comparison.

After long days at the university I was desperate for a swim. In coastal Doha, a peninsula dipping into the Arabian Gulf, the beautiful sea tickling the coast can be a cruel joke for Western tourists accustomed for a quick dip during hot weather, as Western swimwear is not tolerated in public beaches. Therefore, hotel pools and beaches can be a much welcomed oasis as they are not subject to local laws and customs in this way, seemingly to make tourism more comfortable to attract the profitable tourist industry.

While I understood this before arriving, I had trouble imagining how this worked. Would the hotels be small oases of sheepish Western tourists going for a dip? Or would they be a mecca for defiant tourists proudly strutting around in skimpy bikinis sipping on frozen margaritas?

What I saw was a surprise. Rather than a cordoned-off area of disrobing western sunbathers, I saw a bustling mix of Qataris and foreigners splashing around in the pool in a beautiful hogde-podge of mixing cultures. The hotel pool was a favorite spot for locals, many of whom arrived at the pool in traditional Qatari dress. The pool regularly seemed filled half with qataris in local dress, and half with foreign visitors. Here in these special areas, clothing did not divide anyone, burkinis splashed past bikinis in a beautiful dance of…well…complete normalcy.

It is a shame to admit what surprise came to me, leaving Europe where burkini-clad bathers were asked to disrobe, entering the Arab Gulf where I was politely requested to cover-up, to experience the hotel pool where people came as they were, laughing and splashing together. Because of the unique the expectations of this space, clothing was no issue.

I couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe in this place. There was a palpable feeling of complete acceptance not present in the rest of the city – and, indeed, a degree of acceptance not present in many areas in the West.

It is impossible to imagine a world like the pool ― a world that is a zone of complete acceptance. There are too many sticky elements of cultural difference we face – it can be uncomfortable and even insulting to be around elements of culture for some, particularly when it violates hard-won religious or political beliefs (take Laïcité for the French, modesty for devout Muslims). But can we not learn something from the hotel pools in Doha? Could we not expand our zones of acceptance a little further? More than much-needed relief from the heat, the hotel pool in Doha showed me something that years of reading on Islam and feminism could not. When we take people as they are, we can swim a lot further– together, than we can when we judge in our discomfort and try to paddle apart.

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