What do you get when you cross Australian beach culture with a desire to remain clothed in a way acceptable to Muslim women? If you're designer Aheda Zanetti, you get what she says is the world's first two-piece Islamic swimsuit, the burkini.
While other Islamic swimsuits exist, Zanetti says her light-weight, head-to-ankle costumes are the first to be streamlined down to a two-piece suit incorporating a head covering.
With Australian beaches full of girls in skimpy bikinis and revealing one-pieces, there was a "hole in the market that needed to be filled" for more modest beachwear, she said.
"A lot of girls were missing out, a lot of women were missing out, on a lot of sporting activities, including swimming," Zanetti said from the clutter of her southwestern Sydney shopfront.
"There was nothing really suitable for them to wear if they wanted to participate in sport. And if they did participate in sports with a veil, ... there really wasn't something suitable. The fabric was not right, the construction wasn't right."
Zanetti is something of an accidental designer. Trained as a hairdresser, she has never worn a burqa, the restrictive all-encompassing gown worn by women in more conservative Muslim cultures from which her full-body swimsuits take their name. And she never wore a veil until she began designing sportswear.
But the 39-year-old mother-of-four realized that there would be a market for Islamic sportswear when she saw her hijab-wearing niece play netball.
"And when I was looking at her playing sport with a two-piece veil and a skivvy (long-sleeved, high-necked shirt) and the pants and then her netball jersey on top and then her skirt, I thought, 'Oh my god, there must be something better than this,'" she said.
Lebanon-born Zanetti at first created a crop top which incorporated a veil into a modest shirt. She later moved into other sportswear items, including the swimwear, all the while keeping to her motto: "Modesty is number one."
Her company, Ahiida in Sydney's Punchbowl, now receives hundreds of requests from around the country and overseas for the quick-drying, polyester burkinis which cost between AUD160 and AUD200 (US$125 to US$156).
The product has not been without controversy in Australia where riots erupted on Sydney's Cronulla Beach in December 2005 when young white mobs attacked Middle Eastern youths in an attempt to "reclaim" the beach.
"Like today I got an e-mail from a guy saying, 'Muslim women are hot, why can't you just get them to wear the normal bikinis so we can appreciate them more?' Or things like that."
She has also been attacked by fellow-Muslims describing her outfits as a disgrace. "I have had a death threat over my phone from (within) Australia: 'If you ever advertise in a newspaper again I will make sure that you're ...' "I've had people put the burkinis in pornos and really disgraced it. But you know what? I don't take much (notice) of it."
The Cronulla riots, the country's worst racial violence, prompted widespread debate about the extent of latent racism in this multi-ethnic nation.
The burkini has become a part of the solution. Under a government program, more young Muslims are being trained to become volunteer surf lifesavers to patrol the country's beaches.
As Surf Life Saving Australia celebrates its centenary in 2007, Zanetti is producing burkinis in red and yellow — the traditional colors of the iconic lifesavers.
Twenty-year-old Mecca Laalaa would not have trained to become a surf lifesaver were it not for the burkini.
"My clothing and what I wear swimming stopped me from being involved in water activities," she said. "The burkini means there's really nothing stopping me now."
Australian-born Laalaa, who is of Lebanese descent, says wearing a veil and modest clothing had restricted her sporting activities.
"It didn't stop me from playing sport. I would wear long pants and a cotton shirt, it just drained me so much more. I became very easily flustered. It was more water activities — I stopped for quite a long time swimming."
With her burkini, she has been able to complete the training required to become a lifesaver.
"It is daunting but we are doing it for a good cause. Not only for our community but for ourselves also. I am doing it for everybody. It's pretty much just like, 'Look at me, I am just like everybody else, the only difference is what I wear.'"
The burkini is also supported by the country's highest-profile Islamic cleric, Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, a controversial figure who last year sparked outrage when he used a sermon to compare what he viewed as immodestly-dressed women to "uncovered meat."
Zanetti proudly displays the certificate of approval for her products given to her by the sheik. But she says he does not speak for every Muslim.
"As a religious leader he is a very good leader. But as a spokesperson, on behalf of Australian Muslims, I don't think it's suitable for him to speak. That's not his job. But as a religious leader, he's excellent," she said.
She said no other Islamic religious figure in the country would give her formal approval for the burkini. "Mind you, their wives bought them," she says.
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