'Burkini' about inclusion not division in Australia

Tunisian women, one (right) wearing a burkini, walk in the sea at Ghar El Melh beach near Bizerte, north-east of the capital Tunis, on Aug 16, 2016.
Tunisian women, one (right) wearing a burkini, walk in the sea at Ghar El Melh beach near Bizerte, north-east of the capital Tunis, on Aug 16, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (AFP) - Part bikini, part all-covering burqa, the burkini swimsuit has sparked huge controversy in France, but in Australia where beach culture is a national obsession, it's seen as a symbol of inclusion, says its designer Aheda Zanetti.

The light-weight, quick-drying two-piece swimsuit which covers the body and hair has been banned from French beaches by several mayors in recent weeks following deadly attacks linked to militants.

While Australia is grappling with a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment after a series of assaults by radicalised 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 Australian-Lebanese Zanetti, 48, 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 AFP, 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."

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 some 700,000 suits, with the multi-million-dollar business also exporting to wholesalers in countries such as Bahrain, Britain, South Africa and Switzerland.

The burkini came to national prominence after the Cronulla riots in Sydney in December 2005, when a drunken white mob attacked Arab-Australians in a bid to "reclaim the beach" after two lifesavers - 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. They also commissioned Zanetti to create a burkini in their iconic red and yellow colours.

For Siham Karra-Hassan, the burkini - 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 burkini came out, things changed very quickly," the mother-of-six told AFP, adding that her 25-year-old daughter was a burkini-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 (burkini) on, I'm happy."

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

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

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

But she is frustrated the words have taken on negative connotations in France, where Islamic dress has long been a source of tension.

France already bans the full-face veil in public places, and friction over religion has grown following attacks claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group - including the killing of 85 people after a truck rammed into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in Nice.

"They (French politicians) have taken the word of burkini to symbolise it as an Islamic term in a bad way, when it's really just a word. It's a word that I created to suit a product that I make... We're not hiding any bombs underneath it, we are not going to create terrorists from it," she said.

"They are not addressing anything except hatred. A garment is just there to suit the need of that specific event. It just so happens a burkini swimsuit is a modest type of dress for a specific event... and we still wear bikinis underneath it, if that counts."