Brussels bikini warning reopens debate on appropriate clothing in public

Brussels bikini warning reopens debate on appropriate clothing in public
Credit: Pxhere

One Brussels resident has restarted the discussion about what clothing is appropriate in certain situations in the city after sharing her outrage at being told to cover up while wearing a bikini in one of the city's parks.

Kristina Sev, a Greek woman who has been living in Brussels for 15 years, was playing badminton in a bikini during one of the hottest days last month. 

"I was in a more secluded part of the Botanique park with my husband. Suddenly, one of the park rangers came running to me and directly spoke to me, asking me to cover myself," Sev told The Brussels Times.

"I asked for further clarification, and he explained that while I can wear the bikini in the park, I cannot stand and move around in it, I can only lie down in my bikini," she added.

Sev didn't understand why she was being targeted in particular, as all the men around her, including her husband, were shirtless. However, she complied and covered up, "because I didn’t want the attention to be on me and my bikini any longer."

While she complied at the time, Sev later reflected and found that the lack of clear explanation of what exactly she had done wrong did not sit well with her.

"My main annoyance was that, in a multi-cultural society like the one we live in here, where there are so many cultures with so many different standards, the way the so-called rules worked was again stacked against women," she said.

So, what are the rules?

According to a spokesperson from Bruxelles Environnement, the regional authority in charge of the parks, its rules do not include clothing, meaning the information given by the ranger was incorrect.

"Wearing a bikini or swimming costume in hot weather does not contravene the rules, and the park regulations do not define what clothing can be worn," the spokesperson told The Brussels Times when asked about the incident.

"The wardens must, however, ensure the safety and tranquillity of the area for all users and they must assess whether the behaviour of users is causing a nuisance," the spokesperson added.

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Bruxelles Environnement said that while this is "definitely an isolated case," all park rangers have now been given a reminder of the instructions and the rules.

This explanation tracks with the experience of Sev, who agreed that it seemed more like a time or person-specific incident, considering she has stood up in bikinis in other parks in Brussels and has never been confronted about it.

The local government of Saint-Josse-Ten-Noode, where Botanique is located, did not give an official comment on the incident, as it is not in charge of the parks. 

Wider context

Isolated or not, this incident plays into a larger discussion at play in Brussels and beyond about the societal impact of telling women how to dress, especially when those rules are not uniform across genders.

"It should never be the case that women are concerned about how they are dressed, because, men never have to be concerned about this," said Lucas Melgaço, Professor of Urban Criminology at Brussels University (VUB). 

"In summer, men are often topless, and they would never feel scared of being harassed, or that they are doing something wrong," he added.

However, Melgaço pointed out that there is a whole history behind how women and men are seen as different when it comes to what clothing is considered decent and indecent, and that this is often defined by a person’s culture or religion.

Melgaço argued that making sure authorities in power - from park rangers to police officers - get more training when it comes to feminist issues could help make people more understanding and could stop such incidents from happening.

"However, this is a big challenge in what is a very broad issue," he added. 

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