HOD HASHARON, Israel — One of the most jarring images of the summer was of French police demanding that a Muslim woman on a beach in Nice remove parts of her full-bodied swimsuit, known as a burkini.
The photo ignited a debate over French values and religious liberty but also sparked curiosity worldwide. Why do women cover up on the beach? Is it their choice? And does it really matter what swimwear people wear?
Even after a French court overturned the ban, many Israelis felt quite smug when they heard about France’s burkini debate. Although Israel is not known as a bastion of religious tolerance, people here are quite accepting when it comes to religious attire. And it’s not unusual to see ultra-Orthodox Jewish and Muslim women fully covered on Israeli beaches, sitting next to the scantily clad.
At the SunWay warehouse in Hod Hasharon, near Tel Aviv, Anat Yahav does not refer to her line of full-coverage swimsuits as burkinis. To her, they are just modest swimsuits for anyone of any religion, shape, age or size — and for any reason.
“Who decided that women should go to the beach in a bra and panties?” Yahav said on a recent Sunday afternoon, sitting in her airy office at the entrance to SunWay’s colorful warehouse. Orders for her modest swimwear line have increased since the controversy last month, she said, and interest has certainly piqued. Her suits are widely sold — through distributors in Miami, department stories in Greece and online globally, as well as in outlets in Israel.
Yahav started the company nearly two decades ago with a line of UV swimwear to protect babies and children from the harsh Middle East sun. The all-in-one bodysuits she made for children were so popular that mothers began requesting something similar for themselves. Yahav started to make the onesies in bigger sizes 12 years ago, and word soon spread to religious women looking for something that offered full coverage and was less form-fitting.
Inside the SunWay warehouse and showroom, which sits in the shadow of this central Israeli town’s high-tech park, Yahav receives customers of all backgrounds: ultra-Orthodox Jewish women, Muslim women, others who want to protect their skin and those who just don’t like showing off too much skin.
The full-coverage suits come in a variety of styles, plain or patterned, black or bright pink. The ones most popular among Muslim women include a few parts: a hooded bodysuit that is covered by a contrasting swim dress or skirt. Others opt for a swim dress with either long or shorter sleeves, paired with leggings; or perhaps leggings, a skirt and separate top. They are not cheap; each part costs as much as a full swimsuit.
“There is no one popular style. Everyone chooses what suits them,” Yahav said. “Even though they are covered up, the women still want to look good and fashionable.”
Hadas Kan, 50, who had come to shop from a town nearby, said that she is not religious but at “my age, I don’t feel comfortable in a bikini.”
“It’s not that I don’t like my body, I just don’t need to show it to everyone,” she said.
Kan has bought swimming leggings and a swim T-shirt, but no skirt.
“I’m going on vacation next week and this is what I am going to wear,” she said.
The debate over what women are wearing to the beach “is another attack on women,” Yahav said. “If you look at history, if you look at the swimsuits of the past, women were much more covered up, so why is there a problem now?”