The burkini has been making waves as the most controversial swimwear choice in France.
A burkini is a modest swimsuit inspired by traditional Islam burqas. A burkini ban has been enforced in over 30 French towns, mostly along the French Riviera. While the French court has ruled against these bans, many towns are still holding strong to them. Officials claim “the ban is a response to growing terror concerns,” heightened after the gruesome terrorist attacks in Nice and Hollande.
The burkini originated not in a majority Muslim country, but in Australia, by a woman named Aheda Zanetti. Zanetti is originally from Lebanon, but came to Australia as a toddler. She created the burkini in 2004, as an extension of her already existing sportswear line, Ahiida. Zanetti first created Ahiida as a way for Muslim women and girls to play sports comfortably and safely, without having to layer their traditional attire over their sports uniform. “As an active person who liked to participate in community activities and sport, I found myself restricted due to cultural and religious beliefs,” said Zanetti. She noticed other Islam girls and women experiencing the same struggles; thus, Ahiida was born.
Of course, Zanetti’s intentions behind the brand were never to promote terrorism. As she said regarding those trying (and sometimes succeeding) in banning burkinis, “Are they judging a swimsuit or are they judging a race or religion? I think it’s misunderstood.”
Just this month, police officers in Nice forced a woman enjoying a day at the beach to strip from her burkini, and to possibly pay a fine for her choice of clothing. In the same month, another woman was stopped on a beach in Cannes and fined $42 by police officers, simply for donning a hijab. “I was not wearing a burkini, I was not wearing a burqa, and I was not naked. I think that my outfit was appropriate,” the woman said. Even a “Burkini-Only Day” at a French waterpark was cancelled due to pushback from politicians and locals alike.
There are some organizations, as well as individuals, working to ensure women can wear anything they want to the beach. For example, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) has been working to prevent all sorts of displays of Islamophobia since 2000, and is now helping women who have been fined for their choice of headwear and clothing at the beach. Algerian businessman Rachid Nekkaz has also offered to help by paying off the fines women are faced with. “I decided to pay for all the fines of women who wear the burkini in order to guarantee their freedom of wearing these clothes, and most of all, to neutralize the application on the ground of this oppressive and unfair law,” Nekkaz said.
Zanetti estimates that since 2008, she has sold over 700,000 pieces from the Ahiida line, and has given at least 1,500 interviews since the burkini’s inception. Her line is obviously very popular, and has filled a niche market previously not catered to. Despite the current controversy surrounding the burkini, Zanetti remains positive. “It created a lot of confidence within our communities. Muslim women are much more active these days,” she says. “I have no regrets.”