The success of female Islamic beachwear, called the “burkini,” should be seen as part of a growing market for so-called “halal products” in a variety of niches.
This beachwear also allows some Muslims to use it as one more mark of religious and cultural identity, said Diletta Guidi (University of Fribourg) at a recent conference. The conference took place in early May at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), was attended by RW, and focused on Women and Islam. In a commercially astute way, the “burkini” combines the words “burka” (integral veiling, Afghan style) and “bikini”, although it is neither of them: in contrast with a burka, the face is not covered (neither are the hands and feet); in contrast with a bikini, most of the body is covered. The neologism “burkini” puts an emphasis on the syncretic and innovative nature of such a piece of swimwear, aiming to allow Muslim women to swim “in line with Islamic values.”
“Burkini” is a registered trademark. It was launched in 2003 by Lebanese-born Australian fashion designer Aheda Zanetti. According to her, the idea was born out of her personal experience as a young Muslim growing up in Australia and feeling constrained due to her religious beliefs. After watching her niece playing basketball while wearing an Islamic headscarf, the idea came to her to design convenient, Islamic-friendly beachwear and sportwear, produced and distributed by a firm she has founded for that purpose, Ahiida Pty Ltd. But several competitors have entered the market.
According to Diletta Guidi, the success and rapid spread of the burkini around the world can be explained by several factors. First, its price is affordable (most types cost less than $100). Secondly, it can be found not only in hundreds of stores, but also on the Internet, with the anonymity thus provided for ordering. Third, at least since the mid-2000s, a market for “halal” beach holidays has developed (e.g. “100 percent” Islamic holiday resorts in Turkey or Egypt). This halal market also exists for fashion products: there are “Islamic Fashion Weeks” in places such as the United Arab Emirates, and the burkini is part of that trend. Several Muslim religious authorities or preachers have approved the burkini.
What the designers of the burkini had not foreseen was the interest of non-Muslim women for that type of beachwear. According to the marketing director of a British brand, some 15 percent of customers are non-Muslims (for various reasons). Among non-Muslims, however, the burkini has become another topic of controversy regarding Islam and women. While a minority of Western feminists have welcomed the burkini as a way of providing more freedom to Muslim women, others see it as one more way of perpetuating alleged submission of women, and to pressure those Muslim women who do not want to wear it and prefer Western beachwear.
Across Europe, decisions regarding the use of the burkini in public swimming pools have been diverse: in some places, authorities have banned the burkini (for hygiene reasons, or due to its religious connection in France), while others have accepted it as a way of promoting the integration of Muslim women in local society.