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Burkini changing lives for Muslim women

dpa logodpa 21/08/2016 Subel Bhandari

The burkini has given thousands of Muslim women the confidence to participate in an active social life, says its Australian creator Aheda Zanetti.

Siham Karra-Hassan was 15 when her older brother took her to learn how to swim at a public pool in western Sydney.

Excited, she jumped in the pool wearing a cotton shirt and trousers.

"A few seconds later, a lifeguard came and asked me to get out of the pool because I was not dressed properly," she said.

"It was the most embarrassing moment of my life."

Karra-Hassan did not enter a pool again for the next 20 years.

"And then came the burkini, and it changed my life. It allowed me to go to the pool again. I learned swimming at the age of 35," said Karra-Hassan, who came to Australia when she was three.

Now, swimming has become part of her regular exercise regime, helping her fight postnatal depression.

The burkini, a two-piece swimsuit that covers the full body, was invented by an Australian woman, Aheda Zanetti, in 2004.

It consists of trousers and a long-flowing pullover that is attached to a hijood, or hijab hood, that covers the head but not the face.

Zanetti first came up with the idea of comfortable and modest activewear for Muslim women while watching her niece play netball.

"She was wearing track pants underneath her shorts. She looked extremely uncomfortable and hot," Zanetti said.

"I wanted to buy her modest sportswear, but I could not find any."

So she sewed a dress herself. After positive responses from friends and relatives, Zanetti moved on to swimwear, producing her first Lycra-Teflon burkini in June 2004.

Her company, Ahiida, now makes the garment from a high-performance stretchable polyester.

In recent months, many European towns and cities, including some in Germany and France, have started banning the burkini from public places.

"They should not use our garment for their political reasons. I came up with this so that we could integrate in Australia more easily," Zanetti said.

"[A] Muslim woman's body is always politicised. It doesn't matter whether she is covered or not," said Zanetti, who has also designed active sportswear for Afghanistan's women's football team and a Bahraini Olympic sprinter.

"[The] beach is a public space. The ban on the burkini in a public space is ignorance," said Karra-Hassan.

"They really want us to conform to their Western ideas. I am an empowered, independent woman.

"This is my body. It's my temple. I choose how I want to present it."

Zanetti said the backlash in Europe has boosted online sales.

"We are producing more than ever. In France, the sales have gone up by 30-40 per cent in the past three months. In Germany we had to change the delivery service to cater to growth in sales online," Zanetti said.

Growing up, Sydney resident Salwa Elrashid had always wanted to go to Europe. So when she got married last year, she considered going there for her honeymoon. Instead, she went to Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

"After seeing the backlash against Muslim women and refugees, I don't want to go there anymore. I feel like I will be restricted," the 23-year-old said.

"They think Muslim women are all oppressed, but with these kinds of bans they want to oppress us more," said Elrashid, a student at Western Sydney University.

"I am married and I have a husband. But I also work and study. I go out and have fun. I am doing all this out of my choice, not because someone is forcing me."

Elrashid said that without the burkini, she would not have been able to swim at all.

"If not [for the] burkini, then I would be wearing shorts with tights, which is extremely uncomfortable when wet. Also, you cannot use public swimming pools wearing shorts and tights because it would be hard for lifeguards to save you."

Zanetti said the burkini has given thousands of Muslim women the confidence to venture out and participate in an active social life.

"When I was young, none of these things existed. We wore normal cotton clothes and sat by the beach. We were restricted from using the pools. [The] burkini gave Muslim women power and freedom, and now they want to take it away," she said.

"This may be just a swimsuit, but it's a lot more than that for many of us."

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