To its fans it is a symbol of modesty and privacy, an expression of piety, a garment that liberates, integrates and guards against skin cancer. To its detractors it is oppressive and subversive, a fabric that separates society and affronts Western values. And it’s causing a political storm.
The burkini – a swimsuit favoured by Muslim women because it gives full-body coverage, including legs, arms and hair – is making headlines across Europe after some French authorities banned it from beaches otherwise full of sizzling flesh.
And that has horrified self-described “straight-talking Aussie chick” Aheda Zanetti, a 48-year-old mother-of-two, who invented the burkini in part to help her daughters integrate into Western society.
“I can’t believe that my trademark has become a political statement,” says Zanetti, who is often to be seen heading to her store in a Western Sydney suburb dressed in active wear and hijab. “It breaks my heart.”
She was brought to Australia from Tripoli, Lebanon, when she was two, and found as she grew up that she was unable to enjoy sports or swimming because there was a lack of suitably modest attire.
It wasn’t until years later, when she saw her niece struggling to play netball in the Australian heat in a hijab, tracksuit bottoms and skivvy top, that she was inspired to do something for future generations.
“She was so uncomfortable and red, red like a tomato,” she recalls.
With two little girls of her own, she wanted to design clothes to allow them and others to properly integrate into Aussie life.
Not long after launching her product in 2004, she received a boost in sales when the Australian lifeguard organisation asked her to design a version for them.
Sales surged worldwide as Muslim women realised the garment gave them freedom, and an opportunity to be active. To date, she has sold more than 700,000.
Her burkinis cost between A$80 (HK$472) and A$200, depending on size and design, and have proven popular even with non-Muslims, who like them for non-religious reasons – such as protection from skin cancer and body image issues.
Zanetti is not surprised her burkini has been banned in France, considering recent events, but is a little upset.
“I had a little cry when I saw what was happening,” she says. “It’s another blow to women’s rights.”
The bans in France follow a series of deadly attacks by Islamic extremists, which included the Bastille Day terrorist atrocity in Nice that killed more than 80 people.
It led to outspoken Cannes Mayor David Lisnard slamming the burkini for being an “ostentatious show of religious affiliation” at a time the country was battling Islamic fundamentalists. Meanwhile, women’s rights minister Laurence Rossignol told Le Parisien the burkini was not just a new line of swimwear, but a beach version of the burqa that was about hiding women’s bodies in order to better control them.
And on Thursday, the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy called for a full burkini ban across the country as he launched a bid to win back the office he lost in 2012.
But Zanetti says politicians have got the burkini all wrong and by defending her garment, she has found herself an unexpected voice for women’s rights.
“The burkini was designed for women, not for politics,” she says. “What are these French values these politicians talk about?
“What they are actually doing is taking away the rights of women to wear a piece of fabric and be able to enjoy their leisure time in the water.”
She says all Muslims in France are being blamed for the terror attacks, which were the work of criminals.
This has left Muslims lacking in confidence and unwilling to stand up for themselves, she believes.
“As much as I don’t like to give interviews I feel I have a duty to speak on behalf of these women and on any woman’s behalf,” she says.
She says she takes some comfort in the fact there has been a 200 per cent spike in sales of the burkini – also known as the burqini, both of which are names she has trademarked – since the bans were imposed. “I’ve never had a week as busy as this for online sales,” she reveals.
Before the ban, Muslims accounted for about 60 per cent of sales but in the past week most sales have been to non-Muslims. Zanetti believes this is because women want to show their support.
“Orders are still coming from France, all over Europe, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada and the United States. There’s been a big jump in orders from Canada.”
In the Asian market, there is high demand in Japan, while her strongest markets are Malaysia and Indonesia.
Zanetti, a self-confessed workaholic, says her two daughters, aged 13 and 15, have this week realised her business was a lot more than just about selling swimwear.
“Since the ban I’ve been working flat out with orders and people wanting to interview me,” she says.
“My kids have said they’ll clean up and make the dinner and that it’s alright for me to stay late at work. They know I am a voice for these women.”
This year, her eldest daughter chose to start wearing the hijab and will for the first time wear a burkini this summer. “It was her choice. I told her she didn’t have to make this decision now, but it was her choice,” says Zanetti. As for Zanetti, she has always had the support of her Greek husband, Jim, who converted to Islam before she met him.
She’s grateful that today there are modest clothes that allow her to be active and do what she needs to do in comfort. “If I can’t do cartwheels in what I’m wearing, I’m not happy,” she says.
“I want all women to have the same choice as me.”
Julie Cross is a British-born journalist who grew up in Hong Kong and now lives in Sydney