You may be familiar with the burkini, a hooded, three-piece swimming costume popular with Muslim women across the globe. But you probably didn’t know that it was created right here in Australia.
The garment was the brainchild of Aheda Zanetti, a Muslim Australian woman who grew up in western Sydney. She was inspired to design the light, polyester wetsuit after seeing her young niece struggle to play netball in her restrictive full-bodied clothing.
"It got me thinking because when I was a girl I missed out on sport – we didn’t participate in anything because we chose to be modest, but for my niece I wanted to find something that would adapt to the Australian lifestyle and western clothing but at the same time fulfil the needs of a Muslim girl,” she wrote in The Guardian this week.
Since crafting her first burkini back in 2004, Zanetti has sold over 700,000 to clients from Norway to Israel and everywhere in between.
Her design quickly proved a blessing for Muslim women keen to take a dip in the sweltering heat while still maintaining their piety. That said, burkini wearers aren’t restricted by religion: in 2011, Nigella Lawson made headlines when she wore one to shield her skin from the harsh Australian sun.
But Zanetti never could have imagined that her creation would become the centre of a global controversy – this week startling photos emerged of policemen in Nice, France, ordering a woman to remove her burkini (in actual fact, she was wearing leggings, a long-sleeved top and a hijab).
Here’s the background: following a series of deadly jihadist attacks across France over the last few months, 15 French towns have banned the burkini. Their rationale? The garment is a public symbol of religion, and such displays go against the country’s secular code.
Zanetti disagrees: “Anyone can wear [the burkini], Christian, Jewish, Hindus. It’s just a garment to suit a modest person, or someone who has skin cancer, or a new mother who doesn’t want to wear a bikini, it’s not symbolising Islam.
“When I named it the burkini I didn’t really think it was a burqa for the beach. Burqa was just a word for me – I’d been brought up in Australia all my life, and I’d designed this swimsuit and I had to call it something quickly. It was the combination of two cultures – we’re Australians but we are also Muslim by choice.”
The ban has sparked global outrage. Next Thursday, France's Council of State (the highest administrative court) will examine a challenge to the ruling on the grounds that it stigmatises Muslims.
Meanwhile, sales of the burkini have gone through the roof, as non-Muslims buy up big in protest.
But Zanetti’s attention is on the bigger issues at hand.
“This negativity that is happening now and what is happening in France makes me so sad. I hope it’s not because of racism. I think they have misunderstood a garment that is so positive – it symbolises leisure and happiness and fun and fitness and health and now they are demanding women get off the beach and back into their kitchens?
“I don’t think any man should worry about how women are dressing – no one is forcing us, it’s a woman’s choice.”