Bikinis and hijabs contrast on Albanian beach


September has seen devout Muslims again flocking to Albania’s only “burqa beach” after the Ramadan holy month, where women bathe in full hijab − a short distance from the “other” Albania where girls romp in scanty bikinis.

The contrast is not to everyone’s liking but is a testament to Albania’s centuries-old tradition of religious tolerance, which even survived nearly half a century of a communist rule that tried to stamp out all religion.

About two-thirds of this Mediterranean state’s 3.2 million residents are Muslim. Much of the rest is Christian − both Orthodox and Catholic − and co-habitation among the different faiths is the norm in EU-hopeful Albania.

“To each their own,” said Selim, a Muslim who gave only his first name.

But “why do some people think that showing off their buttocks is a sign of civilization and freedom, while protecting one’s body from other people’s glances is an expression of underdevelopment?” he asked.

Selim sat on a small, remote part of the long stretch of beach in Spille, which lies about 100 kilometers (60 miles) southwest of the capital Tirana.

There is nothing official about the patch, nicknamed “burqa beach.” It’s been informally claimed by conservative Muslims who do not wish to expose their bodies while bathing, and is the sole spot of its kind on Albania’s lengthy Adriatic and Ionian coastline.

Empty during Ramadan in August when fasting Muslims avoid swimming for fear of swallowing water, “burqa beach” is again busy as temperatures in recent weeks soared into the 30s C (high 80s F) and often continue so into October.

Despite the rarity of such beaches in Europe, the few dozen families who come here resent the fact there are no facilities and that they must walk a half hour from Spille’s main beach to reach the spot.

But “everyone is free to choose, even those girls in bikinis who line the length of this beach while our women and children only have this little space,” said Selim, carefully watching his wife and sister as they wade into the waves, at the ready since neither know how to swim.

While most Albanians are Muslims, the majority are moderate. Only a handful of women can be seen in the streets of Tirana with their heads covered, and the consumption of alcohol − prohibited in Islam − is commonplace.

Post-communist Albania has seen a revival in all faiths after the complete ban on religion during a half-century of Stalinist rule, which cut Albania off from the outside world.

“Islam does not forbid a woman to bathe, but only if she covers herself in a decent way, to protect herself from the looks and please only God,” insisted Fatima, a mother of two emerging from the water in a long black robe.

“Those who have money go to Turkey or other countries instead of this out-of-the-way spot in Spille that lacks the intimacy and infrastructure for devout Muslims women who must not undress in public or attract any glances,” grumbled 40-something Hasan as his wife went to change in one of the tents set up nearby.

Ermir Gjinishi, a professor of Islamic studies in Tirana, feels Albania should have more women-only beaches for devout Muslim women, as separated from men “they are even allowed to wear bathing suits.”

Over on “bikini” beach, the mood is tolerant but defiant.

“I have nothing to hide, neither from God, nor from the sun,” said psychology student Arjana as she adjusted her bikini strap and insisted swimming in a hijab was no more modest than in a two-piece.

A little way up, several women went further and sunbathed topless − a practice not without risk. Last year police were called in to remove some foreigners who went topless after local families complained.

“Albanian beaches have room for everyone: hijab, burka, bikini, bathing suit,” said Arta, sunning herself on the public beach. “Modesty is a personal issue. It is important that everyone is free to choose and accept the other without any complex.”

Albanian beaches have room for everyone: hijab, burka, bikini, bathing suit

Arta, an Albanian citizen