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With her burqini, Laalaa has been able to complete the training required to become a lifesaver.

SYDNEY — A two-piece swimsuit with a head cover is not only allowing Muslim woman to go to the beaches while wearing modestly, but also join surf lifesaving, once a bastion of white Australian culture and still a heartland of the country’s sun-bronzed, heroic self-myth.

“A lot of girls were missing out, a lot of women were missing out, on a lot of sporting activities, including swimming,” designer Aheda Zanetti, a hijab-clad Australian of Lebanese origin, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Wednesday, January 17.

“There was nothing really suitable for them to wear if they wanted to participate in sport,” she said.

“And if they did participate in sports with a veil, or whatever they wanted to wear, there really wasn’t something suitable. The fabric was not right, the construction wasn’t right.”

Zanetti, a trained hairdresser, came with the idea of the light-weight burqini after she saw her hijab-clad niece play netball.

“And when I was looking at her playing sport with a two-piece veil and a skivvy (long-sleeved, high-necked shirt) and the pants and then her netball jersey on top and then her skirt, I thought, ‘Oh my god, there must be something better than this’,” she recalled.

The 39-year-old mother-of-four first created a crop top which incorporated a veil into a modest shirt but later moved into other sportswear items.

With the beaches full of girls wearing skimpy bikinis and revealing one-pieces, she saw a “hole in the market that needed to be filled” for more modest beachwear.

Zanetti came up with an idea of designing a head-to-ankle costume to allow women engage in whatever activities they want.

The burkini, derived from the words burqa (a head-to-ankle dress) and bikini, is made from ultraviolet- and water-protected polyester.

It covers the whole body except for the feet, hands and face.

The full-length lycra suit is not too figure hugging to embarrass, but is tight enough to allow its wearer to swim freely, according to Reuters.

Zanetti’s Ahiida company in Sydney’s Punchbowl now receives hundreds of requests from around the country and overseas for the quick-drying burqinis which cost between 160 and 200 Australian dollars (125 to 156 US dollars).

Lifesavers

Twenty-year-old Mecca Laalaa would not have trained to become a surf lifesaver were it not for the burkini.

“My clothing and what I wear swimming stopped me from being involved in water activities,” she told AFP.

“It didn’t stop me from playing sport. I would wear long pants and a cotton shirt, it just drained me so much more. I became very easily flustered. It was more water activities — I stopped for quite a long time swimming,” Laalaa recalled.

With her burqini, she has been able to complete the training required to become a lifesaver.

“It is daunting but we are doing it for a good cause. Not only for our community but for ourselves also. I am doing it for everybody. It’s pretty much just like, ‘Look at me, I am just like everybody else, the only difference is what I wear’.”

Laalaa is one of 24 young Australians of Arab heritage who recently signed up to a 10-week training course run by Surf Life Saving Australia.

As Surf Life Saving Australia celebrates its centenary in 2007, Zanetti is producing burqinis in red and yellow — the colors of the iconic lifesavers.

The government has initiated a program to train more young Muslims to become volunteer surf lifesavers to patrol the country’s beaches.

Australia was the scene of racial clashes between ethnic Lebanese Australians and white Australian youths at Sydney’s Cronulla Beach in December 2005.

The riots prompted widespread debate about the extent of latent racism in this multi-ethnic nation.

Controversy

However, the new swimsuit has not been without controversy in Australia.

“I have had a death threat over my phone from (within) Australia: ‘If you ever advertise in a newspaper again I will make sure that you’re…,’ Zanetti said.

But she insists that her beachwear is supported by the country’s highest-profile Muslim scholar Sheikh Taj Aldin al-Hilali.

Zanetti proudly displays the certificate of approval for her products given to her by Hilali.

Yet, she recognized he does not speak for every Muslim.

“As a religious leader he is a very good leader. But as a spokesperson, on behalf of Australian Muslims, I don’t think it’s suitable for him to speak. That’s not his job. But as a religious leader, he’s excellent.”

Hilali has sparked a controversy in Australia when he compared immodestly-dressed women to “uncovered meat”.

Zanetti said no other Muslim scholars would give her formal approval for the burqini.

“Mind you, their wives bought them,” she claims.