Muslim Women Enjoying Special Swimsuits

The Associated Press
Sunday, February 18, 2007; 4:30 PM

LOS ANGELES -- Amana Siddiqi loved swimming as a child but gave it up as a teenager because her Muslim faith required she fully cover her body in public.

"At age 15, I started to cover, so I stopped going to public pools," said Siddiqi, now 27, whose parents come from India and Pakistan. "Most of my friends stopped, too. They felt self-conscious."

Then last summer Siddiqi bought a specially made swimsuit that covers her body while allowing full motion _ and went snorkeling and rode watercraft and slides while on vacation in Hawaii.

Muslim girls and women are increasingly participating in athletic activities, especially as second- and third-generation children of immigrants grow up surrounded by American influences. But doing so requires them to overcome a seemingly large obstacle: Islam's traditional emphasis on modest dress.

When it comes to water sports, the challenge can be even more difficult than in Muslim countries, where the sexes are often separated in pools and on beaches. America is predominantly coed, and increasingly the norm is skimpy swimsuits.

Enter the new-and-improved all-body suit.

While full-body swimwear has been around for decades, in the last couple years it has undergone a renaissance as the niche market has grown. Today about a dozen stores, based in the United States and abroad, sell swimwear to Muslim-American women, mostly through online catalogues.

A full suit can cost more than $100, with pants around $60, shirts at $25 and water scarves and hoods about $15.

The material is high-tech. Synthetic combinations that include polyester, nylon and Lycra allow flexible movement in the water while not sticking to a woman's body when she exits the pool _ which could produce the opposite effect of modesty.

The suits are also increasingly stylish, with aqua to purple to hot pink colors, intricate sequin designs and miniskirts that go over long pants.

"We want to be modest, but we also want to be fashionable," said Shereen Sabet, who last year founded Splashgear, an online swimwear store for Muslim women based in Huntington Beach.

Sabet, 36, a microbiologist at California State University, Long Beach, said she decided to get into the business while trying to reconcile the conflict between her Muslim faith and a love of scuba diving. She realized that many female Muslim friends completely avoided the water because of modesty concerns.

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