The new hijabi-only beach in Montenegro is a welcome sign of inclusivity

(RNS) — In June, the management of Pearl Beach in the city of Ulcinj, Montenegro, announced the opening of the first beach exclusively for women who wear hijab. A TikTok video posted on the beach’s account shows a well-signposted area with a tall privacy screen around it and about 20 beach loungers.

The advertisement for this dedicated area read: “All visitors should adhere to the rules and customs prevailing in this area. Ulcinj is one of the favourite places for summer holidays, and the beach designated for women in hijab will contribute to the inclusiveness of the city.”

Ulcinj already has a designated women-only beach, but it is not suitable for hijabi as other beach users can observe the area from the outside, which would violate Islamic codes of modesty.

While Montenegro is a Christian-majority country (about 70% Orthodox Christian and 19% Muslim), the city of Ulcinj is about 68% Muslim, according to the most recent census data (2011), with a similar percentage identifying as ethnically Albanian. In Montenegro, ethnic Albanians constitute around half of the Muslim population; the other half are of Bosnian ethnicity.

With the new hijab-only beach, Ulcinj, a former pirate fortress on the Adriatic Sea, will likely become an attractive destination for female Muslim beachgoers, both from Montenegro and overseas, especially as instances of violence against Muslim women in Montenegrin beach resorts have been on the rise.

In one such incident in 2023, an individual targeted a Kuwaiti hijabi and her family. They were sprayed with alcohol from a hotel balcony. Another incident involved a man verbally abusing a teenager wearing a burkini — a swimsuit that covers the whole body except the face, hands and feet — and preventing her from entering a pool in a resort. The man’s excuse was, “Because I hate Muslims and 300 guests object to it (the burkini).”

Discrimination against Muslim women at beach resorts and pools is rife across Europe. In 2016, 30 municipalities in France banned the burkini. Although all these local bans were overturned by Conseil d’Etat, the French supreme court for administrative justice, in 2022 the same body inexplicably decided to forbid burkinis in public pools, citing a violation of the principle of government neutrality toward religion.

Some German cities have similar burkini bans at public pools. In 2023, a group of burkini-wearing women was prevented from swimming at a beach in Italy due to “hygiene reasons.” In fact, every summer, the controversy over the burkini in Europe is reignited. (In the United States, Muslim women have also faced intimidation, harassment and expulsion for donning modest swimming attire.)

The hijabi-only section of the beach includes a visually protective fence blocking onlookers and beach chairs for visitors to use. Video Screengrab

The hijabi-only section of the beach includes beach chairs for visitors to use and a fence blocking onlookers. Video screen grab

Notably, there are non-Muslim women who prefer to wear such attire, including some Jewish, Mormon and Hindu women, as well as women concerned about skin cancer — not to mention those who feel sexually objectified when exposing their bodies in skimpy swimwear. In Australia, 40% of burkini sales are to non-Muslims.

As Islamophobia is on the rise in Europe — one outlet described the number of hate crimes against Muslims as “exploding” — Muslim women may be particularly concerned. Due to hijabis’ higher visibility in public, they are much more likely to be targeted than Muslim men (according to a 2016 report, over 80% of recorded Islamophobic incidents in France targeted women; in the Netherlands, it was 90%; in the U.K., 54%.)

In this context, it is a positive thing for Muslim women to have a choice to safely enjoy themselves in a private spot at the Ulcinj hijabi beach. They can do so without the fear of hostile reactions, which they sometimes experience at regular beaches, and in keeping with their interpretation of Islamic precepts regarding modesty.

It does not constitute unfair privileging of one particular group but, rather, addresses a group’s particular needs. After all, there are thousands of nudist beaches that cater to the needs and lifestyle of that community; there are even dog beaches that cater to animals’ needs. Why should a group that is constantly discriminated against not have its own beach, beach section or designated pool hours? Bans and harassment of burkini-wearing Muslim women prevent them from enjoying beneficial exercise and leisure time outdoors.

In 2015, the “Beach Body Ready” ad campaign for weight loss products drew ire from consumers as it implied that one needed to be skinny to use the beach. In 2024, a more pertinent question is, “Are beaches ready for bodies?” And that includes bodies of all shapes, abilities, colors and, yes, levels of skin coverage.

Dr. Anna Piela. Courtesy

Anna Piela. Courtesy of

(Anna Piela, an American Baptist Churches USA minister, is a visiting scholar of religious studies and gender at Northwestern University and the author of “Wearing the Niqab: Muslim Women in the UK and the US.” The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s alone and do not represent the ABCUSA or the American Baptist Home Mission Societies. Nor do they necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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