Sat, Aug 20, 2016 - Page 5 News List

Burqini seen as a symbol of inclusion in Australia

AFP, SYDNEY

Models display Burqinis at a shop in Sydney on Friday.

Photo: AFP

Part bikini, part all-covering burqa, the Burqini swimsuit has sparked huge controversy in France, but in Australia, where beach culture is a national obsession, it is seen as a symbol of inclusion, said its designer, Aheda Zanetti.

The lightweight, quick-drying two-piece swimsuit that covers the body and hair has been banned from French beaches by several mayors in recent weeks following deadly attacks linked to Muslim extremists.

While Australia is grappling with a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment after a series of assaults by radicalized youth, the Burqini has not attracted strong criticism in a country where people regularly cover up at beaches to protect their skin from the harsh sunshine.

The swimsuit is rather seen as allowing more people to participate in the outdoor lifestyle Australians celebrate as part of their national culture.

When 48-year-old Australian-Lebanese Zanetti was designing the outfit on the lounge room floor of her home in the multicultural southwestern Sydney suburb of Bankstown more than a decade ago, her first thoughts were about how it could help girls play sports while respecting their faith as Muslims.

“Australia has a lifestyle of beach, surf and sun and sporting activities and I felt that when I was growing up I missed out on a lot of the activities,” Zanetti told reporters, adding that the idea stemmed from watching her niece play netball.

“I just didn’t want anyone to miss out on any sporting activities like we all did because of our modesty restrictions,” she said.

Zanetti — who was a housewife with three young children at the time — opened her first shop in Sydney in 2005. Since then, she has sold about 700,000 Burqinis, with the multimillion-dollar business also exporting to wholesalers in countries such as Bahrain, Britain, South Africa and Switzerland.

The Burqini came to national prominence after the Cronulla riots in Sydney in December 2005, when a drunken mob attacked Arab-Australians in a bid to “reclaim the beach” after two lifeguards — viewed as national icons — were beaten, and retaliatory attacks spread.

The violence shocked Australians and sparked efforts by Surf Life Saving Australia to recruit Muslim lifeguards to patrol beaches. It also commissioned Zanetti to create a Burqini in its iconic red and yellow.

For Siham Karra-Hassan, the Burqini — which she describes as “like a second skin” — was her opportunity to return to the swimming pool, two decades after she was chased out of the water by a lifeguard for wearing cotton clothes.

“When the Burqini came out, things changed very quickly,” the mother-of-six told reporters, adding that her 25-year-old daughter was a Burqini-wearing swimming instructor.

“I’m extremely active ... so the more I can exercise, the more I can get into that water, the more I can throw this [Burqini] on, I’m happy,” she said.

Other swimmers initially stared at Karra-Hassan, but since then she has been approached by people, including non-Muslims, who want to wear the Burqini to protect themselves from Australia’s harsh sun.

Fitness instructor Fatma Taha, who runs women-only water aerobics classes at local swimming pools in Sydney’s west, regularly trains Muslims and told reporters the arrival of full-body swimwear made it easier for Muslim women to head to the water.

Zanetti claims the trademark on the name Burqini and says her designs are the first to be streamlined into two-piece swimwear that have a head covering.

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