The surprising Australian origin story of the ‘burkini’

August 17

Along France’s beaches and swimming pools, there’s a war about how women dress. A number of French towns have recently banned the “burkini” – a swimsuit worn by some Muslim women that covers the entire body except for the face, hands and feet.

On the French island of Corsica, brawls and protests have been linked to the garment. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls waded into the debate Wednesday, saying that he supports the bans on the burkini and that the garment is “not compatible with the values of France and the republic.”

The controversy resonates sharply in a country where the female attire has been a flash point between the traditionally secular majority and a Muslim minority, with mostly immigrant backgrounds, for years. Throw in devastating recent attacks linked to Islamist militants and the situation is pretty volatile.

Yet for all the burkini controversy, the backstory of the garment is often overlooked. The burkini didn’t originate in Europe. And, no, it didn’t originate in the Middle East or a Muslim-majority nation, either.

Instead, the burkini was crafted in Australia, designed for the white sandy beaches of Sydney. And though the garment is proving divisive in Europe, its creator says she was inspired by a desire for inclusion — and a healthy entrepreneurial spirit.

“I wanted to change the Islamic symbol of a veil,” burkini creator Aheda Zanetti says. “I wanted to make sure we blended in with the Australian lifestyle.”

You can trace the burkini’s origins to the early 2000s in Bankstown, a Sydney suburb with an ethnically diverse population where Zanetti lived. Zanetti was born in Tripoli, Lebanon, and moved to Australia when she was 2.

It was a game of netball that first inspired Zanetti to make sportswear, she says, speaking over the phone from her home on Wednesday. She had been watching her young niece play her first game of netball but was dismayed to see her have to play with her team uniform worn on top of more traditional Islamic attire. “When I looked at her, she looked like a tomato,” Zanetti says.

Though Zanetti didn’t wear the Islamic veil herself (she has since started), her niece’s predicament angered her. She looked for a garment that was both modest and suitable for sports. She couldn’t find one, so she decided to take matters into her own hands.


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