“Hey coach, we got all the way to Middle Island and back,” beams the young woman, emerging from the sea, covered head to heel in a black polyester “hijood”, tunic and bodysuit. The hot sun is bruising its way across the eastern sky above Repulse Bay Beach, where almost two dozen more Indonesians – and some Filipinos, too – are also learning how to swim. The woman switches from English to Bahasa Indonesia to joke with her friend, giggles and heads for shade under a lifeguard tower. Nowadays, “burkinis” are a relatively common sight on Hong Kong beaches, but before they were, their wearers were not. These women, most of them domestic helpers, wouldn’t have considered going to the beach, let alone taking swimming lessons from the Splash Foundation , were it not for this Islam-friendly garment. Since it was founded in 2015, the Hong Kong charity has given more than 2,000 women and young people from low-income communities the chance, over 11 weekly one-hour sessions, to learn water safety and how to swim for at least 25 uninterrupted metres. “I wear the burkini for safety, freedom and [to feel] comfortable,” says Nuryani, a 40-year-old from Indonesia. “Because I don’t need to worry about men ogling me when I swim.” It’s not that full-cover swimwear is an unusual sight on Hong Kong’s beaches, or that sexual attention is such a problem that vast amounts of fabric are required as a deterrent. Many Chinese swimmers here wear full bodysuits, some even don “facekinis”, cut with eye, nose and mouth holes to avoid sun exposure. It’s almost incidental that the Muslim women in burkinis are covering up for reasons of ideology or faith. “Many people ask why I need to cover myself,” says Novi, 34, a Splash graduate from Cilacap, in Central Java. “It’s our faith – it’s between us and Allah. It’s our choice.” Compare this placid strip of inclusive Asian beach to the French Riviera in the summer of 2016. France’s collective psyche was still reeling from seeing a cargo truck mow through crowds celebrating Bastille Day, on July 14, on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais. Islamic State had claimed responsibility for killing 86 people and injuring hundreds. France’s prime minister at the time, Francois Hollande, declared a state of emergency. A month later, the mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, singled out the burkini as “a uniform that is the symbol of Islamic extremism”, banning the garment from its beaches. Other Gallic municipalities followed suit. “I voted to ban the burka in public places,” said Daniel Fasquelle, then mayor of the beach town Le Touquet. “There is no reason [the same amount of cover] should be tolerated on the beach.” That August, on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais beach, male police officers were photographed forcing a Muslim woman in a headscarf and tunic to remove part of her clothing and issuing a fine for flouting the no-burkini rule. Rupert Colville, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the French bans were “a grave and illegal breach of fundamental freedoms [and] fuel religious intolerance and the stigmatisation of Muslims”. By the end of the month, not only had the ban been lifted, the Administrative Court of Nice had ruled that “the emotions and concerns resulting from terrorist attacks, and especially from the [Nice] attack, are insufficient grounds to legally justify the contested ban”, adding that burkinis posed no risk to “hygiene, decency or safety when swimming”. Not since the origin of the bikini had a bathing garment incited social unrest. 70 years of the bikini, the women who made it hot Created in 1946 by Louis Réard, a French automobile engineer turned clothing designer, the two-piece swimsuit took its name from the Bikini Atoll, a South Pacific United States military outpost and infamous cold-war nuclear test site. Réard’s cleverly marketed invention caused shock waves along the beaches of the French Riviera when actress Brigitte Bardot posed in a floral bikini for the swarms of Croisette photographers at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. Regulations to restrict bikini-wearing were implemented in Australia, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and the US. The bikini was banned from beauty pageants worldwide until 1977. Pope Pius XII called the bikini “sinful”.The National Legion of Decency, an American association of Catholic priests who approved morally unobjectionable films with an “A” rating, downgraded many featuring women in bikinis to “B” (morally objectionable) or “C” (condemned). “The bikini is associated with scandal and that’s why it survived,” noted Killoren Bensimon, a former model and author of The Bikini Book (2006). Attempts to ban the bikini in the 1950s only made them more sought after. In a strange kind of East-West cultural role reversal, the same seems to be happening with the burkini. It’s the Streisand effect of swimwear. Aheda Zanetti would know. The Australian invented the burkini, and having gone to market in 2003, she says sales rose from an average of 200 suits a month to more than 2,000 in the aftermath of the French ban in 2016, with most orders coming from Europe. Born in Tripoli, Lebanon, in 1967, Zanetti’s family moved to Sydney when she was two. Growing up, she enjoyed sewing and swimming, but stopped getting in the water when she “started growing boobs”. At 35, married and having given up work to raise three children born within a year of each other, she borrowed a little money and, drawing on her teenage dressmaking hobby and an annoyance that Muslim attire was not conducive to an active lifestyle, Zanetti launched her burkini line, Ahiida, at a local Islamic fair. “You couldn’t actually buy one because I didn’t have any stock. I printed a leaflet with a picture of it, and one question: Would you wear this swimming?” The answer was a resounding echo of yeses, from Australia and far beyond. Zanetti leased a granny flat from a neighbour and started production, but things really took off after Sydney’s 2005 Cronulla race riots. What began as a skirmish between youths of Middle Eastern appearance and a group of Anglo-Australian lifeguards ended in clashes across several southern suburbs of the city. To dampen tensions, the government launched a scheme to recruit lifeguards from Muslim communities. Zanetti designed a red and yellow two-piece uniform so Muslim women could patrol the beaches, too. The positive exposure made the four-foot eight-inch Lebanese immigrant a national hero. “I was getting noticed in the street,” she laughs. “My husband couldn’t handle it. I was asked to speak at Yale University and the United Nations. The Malaysian minister of tourism thanked me for increasing tourism in his country!” From refugee camp to runway, hijab-wearing US model breaks barriers and helps the headscarf go mainstream Zanetti owns the Burkini and Burqini trademarks, but it was never just about selling swimsuits for her: “One day, this lady was going on holiday and wanted to buy a burkini. It seemed like a really big decision for her. She was a big lady, so I had to make her one personally. Two weeks later she came back crying. I thought: ‘What have I done? Has the swimsuit fallen apart?’ Eventually, she told me. She had the most wonderful time of her life. It was the first time she had been able to swim with her kids. Her husband was so proud of her.” I wear the burkini for safety, freedom and [to feel] comfortable. Because I don’t need to worry about men ogling me when I swim Nuryani, 40, a Hong Kong domestic helper Eleven weeks ago, none of the women at this Splash class could swim. A few had never stepped into a body of water. A quarter of the class are Indonesian Muslims and most, but not all, wear burkinis. Today is the culmination of their hard work, where they cast off their fears and swim the length of a 25-metre pool. All of them make it across. If not for the burkini, they would never have even tried. Having achieved this level of skill in the pool, some of them are now ready for the sea. These women and others swimming at international-school pools across Hong Kong don’t care about France’s political burkini battles. Here, the garment means freedom. “Being in the water makes me feel calm and happy,” says Susanna, 35, an Indonesian helper, journalist and swimmer. “It changed my body and my mind. It changed my life.” RUSMIYATI SUNARTO, 44 “I have been in Hong Kong for almost 13 years. I live in Tseung Kwan O. I come from Solo, Central Java, Indonesia. I have two daughters – 24-year-old Vina and 19-year-old Bella. I want to learn to swim because I need to be more healthy. My goals in life are to make my family happy, be successful and be the best mother to my children.” SHANTY AMIR, 41 “I have been in Hong Kong for 18 years. I live in Kwun Tong. I come from Manado City, North Sulawesi, Indonesia. I have two kids – Andika, 21, and Andini, 19. I am learning swimming because I need physical exercise and [to be able to survive] in the event of an accident in the ocean. I am hoping to teach friends and families who don’t know how to swim.” SARTINI, 40 “I have been working in Hong Kong for about 10 years. I live in Sheung Wan. I come from Bekasi, in West Java, Indonesia. I have one child. His name is Arief. He is 15.” NURYANI, 40 “I come from Boyolali, Central Java. I am not married. I have been in Hong Kong for 10 years. I live in Tsuen Wan. I want to be successful, help others, have a healthy life, enough sleep, more exercise and a happy family.” NOVI FITRIYANI, 34 “I’ve been working in Hong Kong for 10 years. I live in Kowloon. I come from Cilacap, Central Java. I’m single. My goal is to open free tuition classes for needy kids in my hometown. I learn swimming because I want to overcome a traumatic childhood experience – I almost drowned when I was small. Hopefully, once I know how to swim well, I can teach others who are afraid of water or don’t know how to swim.” MARTINI, 38 “I have been in Hong Kong for eight years. I live in Ap Lei Chau. I come from Cilacap. I have one daughter. She is 14 years old.” Simon Holliday is the founder of the Splash Foundation.