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The surprising Australian origin story of the ‘burkini’

Mecca Laa Laa, center, is wearing a full-body "burkini" as she sits with other Muslim lifeguards at Sydney's Cronulla Beach in February 2007. (Anoek de Groot/AFP via Getty Images)

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.

"I'm a gutsy woman," she says by way of explanation.

Zanetti created what she would go on to call the hijood — a portmanteau of hijab and hood. It was a breathable and easy-to-put-on garment that would cover the head and allow modest Muslim women to play sports easily. After a positive reaction at a local Islamic festival, she decided to start up a business, Ahiida, in June 2004.

Ahiida quickly moved onto swimwear. Zanetti says the move to create the burkini was inspired by an article she read that contained a description of Muslim women wading into the water wearing burqas. She decided to look up the definition of the burqa in the dictionary, which described it as a garment that covers the head and the body.

She then looked up the meaning of "bikini." It was described as a small two-piece bathing suit. Zanetti decided there was no reason not to combine the burqa and the bikini. "It's just a name that I invented. It doesn't mean anything," she says of the burkini. "It's really an Islamic two-piece bikini, but that sounds stupid."

At first, Zanetti's garment attracted only a niche following. However, events would soon force it into the spotlight in Australia — and eventually grant it international attention.

In the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, there had been considerable conflict between Muslims and white Australians in Sydney. These tensions boiled over in 2005, when mobs on the city's Cronulla Beach attacked Muslim men in riots that lasted days.

After this violence, civic organizations began to look for a way to help Muslim Australians integrate and show other Australians that their Muslim peers were part of Australian society. In 2007, a nonprofit group called Surf Life Saving Australia launched a campaign to find Muslim lifeguards to work on Sydney's beaches.

But there was a problem finding female Muslim lifeguards. The more revealing outfits often worn by women in Australia didn't sit well with many Muslim women. Although a variety of body-covering swimsuits had been produced for Muslim women over the years — a Turkish company named Hasema claims to have been producing them since the early 1990s — they were rare in Australia and not really suitable for lifeguards.

Here's where Zanetti came in. Surf Life Saving reached out to her to ask whether she could make a burkini suitable for lifeguards. She tweaked her design to help it stand up better to the work required of a lifeguard, making it a little tighter and a little shorter, and created a bold yellow-and-red design.

It was an immediate hit with young Muslims in Sydney. "The burkini allowed me to participate in activities at a level I had never previously expected," Mecca Laa Laa, a 20-year-old Muslim lifeguard in Sydney, told the Associated Press in 2009.

Before long, the burkini was being discussed by virtually every news outlet in Australia and many international designers, too. "The world exploded when they saw it," Zanetti says. "I've done over 1,500 interviews since then."

She estimates that she has sold more than 700,000 garments since 2008. She says she sells burkinis all over the world to customers of all stripes. "The burkini that we produce is a fantastic product for any Muslim to wear," Zanetti says. "And non-Muslims, too. We've sold to Jews, Hindus, Christians, Mormons, women with various body issues. We've had men asking for them, too."

In 2011, The Washington Post's Style section spoke to an Iraqi mother living in Reston, Va., who had bought an Ahiida-brand burkini; she gushed that she could now swim with her children in public. “I love it,” Amana Rashid said. “I can help my daughter learn how to swim. And no one has ever said anything negative about me wearing one. In fact, one person told me it was a good idea.”

Some non-Muslim celebrities also have been spotted wearing similar products — British chef Nigella Lawson wore a burkini-like outfit on Sydney's Bondi Beach in 2009. The Ahiida-brand burkini has sparked imitations from mainstream retailers such as Britain's Marks & Spencer.

If anything, the burkini might be a victim of its own success. Ahiida owns the trademarks to both the word "burkini" and the alternative spelling "burqini," but both have become generic terms for all similar Islamic swimwear. Zanetti says that she has tried to enforce her copyright but that it is hard in the international market.

She also expresses concern that the name may cause more controversy than it is worth. For one thing, the word "burqa" is often used to denote a garment that covers the face, but the Ahiida-brand burkinis leave the full face open, covering only the head. "The misunderstanding is about the name," she says.

Now the situation in France has renewed interest in the burkini. "It's deja vu," Zanetti says. This time, however, she feels that the nature of the attention has changed. "Before it was quite positive," she says. "Now everyone thinks we're hiding bombs in our burkinis."

Even so, she's glad she made the burkini. "It created a lot of confidence within our communities. Muslim women are much more active these days," she says. "I have no regrets."

More on WorldViews:

Banning burqas isn’t a sensible response to terrorism

What France thinks of multiculturalism and Islam