Aheda Zanetti is good at marketing. She has a knack for names. When Zanetti – a 48-year-old Australian who was born in Lebanon – invented a breathable garment that would make it easier for modestly dressing Muslim women to exercise, she called it a hijood, a portmanteau of hijab and hood. In 2004, Zanetti created a body-covering swimming costume, which she called a “burkini” – a portmanteau of burka and bikini. She lives in a western suburb of Sydney and worked as a hairdresser until she founded her company.
The story of the burkini – and how it first came to public attention – began on a beach. In December 2005 there were riots in the seaside suburb of Cronulla, southern Sydney, which started with a confrontation between young men of Lebanese origin and off-duty surf lifesavers. The tension spread and there were further riots in which people of foreign origin were singled out and abused, followed by retaliation. The government sought to bridge the divide and encouraged Surf Life Saving Australia to recruit Muslims. The organisation approached Zanetti. She adapted the burkini to fit their needs.
The new burkini received a lot of positive publicity when it was worn by Mecca Laalaa, who became the first Muslim Australian surf lifeguard in 2006. In her yellow-and-red outfit, she looked good.
Then, this summer, the burkini was banned by 31 seaside towns in south-eastern France. In the years since its invention, it had partly slipped away from its creator: the term has become generic, describing any full-body swimsuit used by Muslim women to dress modestly.
That the burkini has been used elsewhere to facilitate integration was lost on French politicians who enforced their short-term bans. But perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising in a country where the far right had long been stirring up fears about migrants.
Since the recent terrorist attacks in France, the hijab, the niqab and other items of religious clothing have been interpreted as threats to the secular ideals of the French republic. Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that the burkini was “a political sign of religious proselytising” and the “enslavement of women”.
In its ruling on 22 August, the administrative court in Nice stated that after recent terror attacks – particularly the killing of a Catholic priest in a church in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, Normandy, on 26 July: “Wearing a garment on the beaches to display conspicuously religious beliefs that can be interpreted as [Islamic fundamentalism] is likely to harm the religious beliefs, or the absence of religious beliefs, of the other users of the beach, but also to be perceived by some as a provocation, exacerbating tensions felt by the population.”
The current state of emergency in France was used to justify the ruling. Neither the banning of headscarves in schools in 2004 nor the niqab ban on the streets in 2010 made such explicit statements; if they had done so, they would surely have failed to pass, on the grounds of discrimination. Indeed, a ruling by France’s highest court on 26 August on a test case related to one of the bans stated that a mayor could not restrict individual liberty as there was no “proven risk” to public order.
Photographs showing French police officers asking a woman to undress on a beach in Cannes went viral. Film footage that showed another woman describing how she had been asked to pay a fine for wearing a hijab on a beach in Nice (published by the French anti-Islamophobia organisation, the Collectif contre l’Islamophobie en France) was also widely circulated.
Both cases are upsetting. Yet the implicit violence that they exposed has been a part of French life for a long time. Since 2004 there has been a gradual increase of situations in which headscarves have been banned, with successive controversies about whether they should be permitted in workplaces and universities. The burkini row has exposed French hypocrisy and anti-Islamic paranoia to the world.
The uproar in France has taken the burkini far away from what its creator originally intended. Zanetti started thinking about “modest” sportswear after seeing her niece play netball in her hijab and noticing that “she looked like a tomato, she was so red and hot”. She has since written about how this inspired her to “do something positive . . . and anyone can wear this, Christian, Jewish, Hindus”. For her, there is nothing particularly Islamic about the garment – the burqa is not even mentioned in the Quran, as she pointed out in a recent article.
Yet her creation has become the controversial symbol of Islam in France. However, it hasn’t all been bad – Zanetti told the press that the controversy had boosted sales and interest, including inquiries from skin cancer survivors. The mother-of-three and self-described “Aussie chick” wrote in the Guardian that she would probably call herself a feminist, though she likes to stand behind her man. Even if it was part of the promotion for her brand, I found her description of her first test of the burkini in a public pool moving. It worked, and she felt joyful as she dived.
Zanetti’s two teenage daughters also swim in burkinis. She told the Politico website: “The beach is there for everyone to enjoy. We are women. We should be able to wear whatever we want to and do whatever we want to do, whenever we want to do it.” Who can argue with that?
This article appears in the 31 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war