Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny Outrage
The year’s hottest swimsuit—and its most controversial—leaves a lot more to the imagination
BY Leah Mcgrath Goodman
Ah, summer! Long days, blistering heat, cool dips in the pool. And the burkini. Yes, the burkini is a portmanteau for burqa, a robe-like garment popular with some Muslim women, and bikini, a two-piece bathing suit that first appeared 70 years ago.
Like its predecessor, the burkini is a two-piece suit for women. But unlike the bikini, which was scandalized for showing too much skin when it first appeared in 1946, the burkini consists of a long-sleeve top and full-length pants that cover the entire body, except for the hands, face and feet.
While the skin quotient of the two swimsuits could not be at further ends of the spectrum, both let women decide just how much skin they want to show. And both suits were met with similarly strong reactions: fury, derision and bans.
Yet the burkini, like its once-scandalous cousin, is gaining traction with a wide cross-section of women, not just Muslims but also women of other religious faiths, as well as those who simply wish to avoid a sunburn or ogling by passersby.
British retailer Marks & Spencer, which this year went mainstream with a line of burkinis in two shades —blue and black—tells Newsweek it’s already out of stock. Spokeswoman Emily Dimmock says the retailer is selling them in many of the 58 countries in which we operate, including the Middle East, China and Hong Kong.
The popularity of the burkini, however, hasn’t stopped many from objecting on grounds ranging from the violation of personal freedom to social irresponsibility to hygiene. In early July, the Austrian town of Hainfeld was the latest to ban the burkini at its public pool. Peter Terzer, a town councillor and member of Austria’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim Freedom Party, claimed the burkini is “unsanitary.” This would have been hard to believe, had it not already happened in June, when the German town of Neutraubling imposed a similar ban, also citing hygiene fears.
The mayors of both towns vociferously defended the bans, citing complaints from swimmers and fears that burkinis in the pool area might taint the waters. Burkinis have also been banned in parts of France, Italy and Morocco.
Shabana Mir, a London-born Muslim who teaches cultural anthropology at American Islamic College in Chicago, says she finds the argument over hygiene laughable, since burkinis are made from ordinary swimsuit fabrics and cover most of the body, which would presumably reduce direct contact with the water and other swimmers. She noted in an online piece, “The Deadly Burkini, or, What Exactly Is an ‘Islamic Swimsuit’?” that “it’s extremely unfair and sexist to require women to dress in such attire” as bikinis or one-piece suits if it leaves them feeling overly exposed.
The burkini crackdowns echo the resistance to the bikini, initially banned along the French coastline, as well as in Italy, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Australia and parts of the U.S., and finally denounced by Pope Pius XII in the 1950s as sinful.
This summer, France’s women’s rights minister, Laurence Rossignol, condemned retailers like M&S and high-end labels like DKNY and Dolce & Gabbana for offering full-coverage swimsuits and glamorous head-to-toe Islamic haute couture. She said they are not “socially responsible” and promote “the shutting away of women’s bodies.”
When the interviewer pointed out that some women choose to cover up, she likened Muslims wearing burkinis to “American negroes who were in favor of slavery.” The minister’s remarks drew demands for her resignation. Rossignol later apologized for use of the word “negro” but has maintained her position.
It is highly unlikely the grandstanding will have much effect, becauseóboom!ómath. Islamic fashion is one of haute coutureís hottest niches, with spending expected to skyrocket an estimated 82 percent from 2013 to 2019, reaching $484 billion, according to researcher DinarStandard.
Mir, who does not wear a burkini—instead favoring something more akin to a feminine surf suit—takes issue with the idea that a Muslim wearing a burkini is any different from nun wearing a habit or a woman wearing high heels. With the exception of women forced to wear Islamic garb against their will (which she says is very un-Islamic), it’s all about personal choice. “I have to go to work wearing this uncomfortable clothing, but it’s our culture!” she says, adding that she grew up wearing a burqa but now wears typical business attire to work, like many Americans. “Somebody else wears high heels—they embrace it. It’s uncomfortable. It’s painful. It’s expensive… People can easily see it as offensive and oppressive…. To say the burkini limits a woman’s freedom is to forget that freedom is, first and foremost, about choice.”
Does the burkini mean a loss of freedom? Newsweek caught up with the inventor of the burkini to find out. Aheda Zanetti, a Lebanese Muslim woman who lives in Bankstown, Australia, near Sydney, says she began working on designs for the burkini after watching her 11-year-old niece struggling to play sports in a long, flowing hijab, or head scarf. “She looked like a tomato, her face was so red wearing all that clothing,” she recalls.
She searched for Muslim swimsuits and sportswear online and found nothing. “I realized that we didn’t really swim or play sports when I was growing up, not because we didn’t want to but because we just didn’t have the clothing!” she says. “So we never really enjoyed the summer life, the sports lifestyle Australia has to offer.”
She launched her company, Ahiida Burqini Swimwear, 12 years ago. “People went absolutely crazy,” she says. “I wasn’t prepared for it. Now we have sales all over the world, and whenever they ban it, people just buy more of them.”
Zanetti says she and her two teen daughters wear burkinis, but 35 to 45 percent of her market is non-Muslim. “I have a lot of people who like them because they want the UV protection or prefer to cover more of themselves,” she says. “Not all of us like to be naked. As for Muslims, wearing comfortable and flexible clothing is something we are used to! Now we have Muslim women competing in swimming and marathons and becoming a lot more confident.”
That said, Zanetti has detractors. “One Italian man wrote to me to say, ‘I enjoy watching women in a bikini—why are you doing this to us?’ And I wrote back, ‘Use your imagination!’”