Burkini, bikini

The West and the full-body Muslim swimsuit.

Monokini trikini, face-kini, fatkini... there are many different bikini options, and different types of costumes to satisfy different requirements: political, medical, aesthetic, even religious.

The burkini, the first 'Islamically correct' female bathing suit, has been with us since 2003.

More a full-body costume than a one-piece suit, the burkini comprises trousers, a crew neck tunic and a cap; leaving only the wearer's feet, hands and face uncovered. And so, despite its name, this 'Muslim three-piece' is not a combination of the Islamic burka and a bikini, but rather the outcome of a mediation between the values these two articles of clothing represent: religious piety on the one hand, and female emancipation on the other. The first bathing costume for the 'modern Muslim woman' was designed by Aheda Zanetti, an Australian designer of Lebanese extraction who owns a 'Sharia-compliant sportswear' company.

In her attempt to come up with a bathing suit that would be suitable for active yet religiously observant women and enable them to take part in water sports and other everyday activities, Aheda invented the burkini – her own registered trademark – as a sort of compromise between religion and integration. The inspiration apparently came to her while watching her niece play basketball wearing a veil.

Unlike the hijab, which hinders movement, the designer was looking to create something practical but discreet and eminently decent, in line with her own interpretation of Islam.

Thanks to the Internet and the development of the halal market, the burkini has become the brand of choice for Muslim women, particularly those who live in European countries.

It may come as a surprise that a considerable share of her clientele is not religiously inclined. In Britain, 15% of the buyers of these full-body costumes are not Muslims. Pressured to meet impossible aesthetic standards by the media and the consumer society, some secular- minded women are now wearing this article to hide excess weight or other aesthetic flaws.

Wearers of the burkini include Ruqaya al- Ghasara, the Bahraini athlete who won the 200-metre dash at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha wearing the running version of the costume, and Easkey Britton , the Irish surfer who wore it on Iranian beaches: a surprisingly diverse range of female sports stars.

A cult object in every sense, the burkini has become a classic example of the Islamic fashion business. On display on Abu Dhabi catwalks, it hasn’t only made a splash on Al Jazeera, it also features in the pages of major women’s magazines such as Vogue and Grazia.

The product launch raised a few eyebrows. Singled out by the majority of western feminists as a symbol of female submission to men, the burkini has garnered the approval of a vocal minority that considers it a tool for Muslim women’s emancipation.

The bathing suit has met with legal problems in certain parts of Europe. In France, for example, it is forbidden to wear burkinis in public pools: for sanitary reasons, some claim; while others suspect the ban may be due to its religious associations.

The same argument, however, has been overturned in Germany, where, in 2003, the Federal Administrative Court ruled in favour of the “Islamic swimwear” because it could facilitate Muslim women’s social integration. In Britain there are pools entirely set aside for burkini swimmers.

The Australian coast guard has authorised a work version of the burkini to enable Muslim lifeguards to work on the beaches. After all, Australianborn Aheda Zanetti’s burkini immediately got the stamp of approval from the Australian Mufti, Taj Aldin al-Hilali.

Ten years since it first reached the market, the burkini is now the victim of its own success. Copied, counterfeited or simply conceptually revisited, there are now many labels producing their own versions of the full-body costume.

This year, on the stands of the Muslim Trade Fair in Paris there was even a rajol: “the first Islamic swimsuit in the world designed for men”.

But beyond the mark that the full-body costume seems to have made on the fashion history of international swimwear, more than anything else it provides evidence of the changes revolutionizing contemporary Islam itself, as it reinterprets the tools and symbols of the ‘modern’ western world where the faith now resides, adapting them to its own religious and cultural requirements.

More than a bathing costume, the burkini is a symbol of the new, 21st century Islam.


Diletta Guidi teaches at the University of Freiburg, where she is a Ph.D candidate completing a thesis on Islam and French cultural policies. 

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