Bangkok/Singapore: Aheda Zanetti says she wants Muslim women wearing Islamic-style swimwear to be a regular sight on Australian beaches — and in elite sporting contests worldwide.
The Sydney designer’s two-piece, head-to-toe bathing suit, dubbed the burqini, was adopted by Australia’s new Muslim lifeguards this year. The women volunteered to help watch over Sydney beachgoers after race riots during the 2005 southern summer strained community ties.
“I found a hole in the market,’’ said Zanetti, 39, a Lebanese-born mother of four, adding that she has sold 5,000 of the hooded, water-resistant outfits worldwide. “We aimed for the Muslim girl.’’
The burqini, a linguistic marriage of burqa and bikini, is helping kindle interest in lightweight sportswear that lets Muslim women remain modest while being competitive. The spending power of 650 million women who practice Islam is largely untapped by the $235 billion-a-year (Rs9,86,099 crore) global sporting goods industry.
“The market in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and some North African countries is certainly ripe to explode,’’ said Andre Gorgemans, secretary general of the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry in Lausanne, Switzerland, whose members include Nike Inc. and Speedo International Ltd.
Smaller companies such as Zanetti’s Ahiida Ltd and Shereen Sabet’s Splashgear LLC in Huntington Beach, California, may have to lead the way, said Rimla Akhtar, chairwoman of the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation in Harrow, England.
“You’ve got to get more Muslim women into sports and competing at a higher level before you can have the big sportswear companies coming in to play,’’ said Rimla, who captained the U.K.’s five-a-side soccer team at the International Islamic Women’s Games in Iran in 2005.
World soccer authorities last month made achieving that goal harder. The Zurich-based Federation Internationale de Football Association banned headscarves for safety reasons.
The ruling came after an 11-year-old Muslim girl was ejected from a tournament near Montreal for wearing a headscarf.
Some women have few options. Iran, for example, is among a handful of Muslim-majority countries with female dress codes.
In public, Iranian women must cover their bodies and hair. They may wear a chador, a single piece of fabric falling from head to toe, or don headscarves and loose-fitting coats. Chadors don’t cover the face like burqas.
Innovations such as the burqini offer new opportunities for Muslim women, said Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, founder of the Iranian Women Sports Federation and daughter of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The burqini is a “positive step and each country and group can adapt it to its own specificities,’’ Faezeh said in a faxed response to questions.
For Splashgear owner Sabet, designing modest swimwear followed her decision six years ago to wear a headscarf.
“I faced a personal obstacle and I was trying to find a solution,’’ said Sabet, 36, a scuba diver attending California State University, Long Beach. “I placed ads in local papers and word of mouth spread, and on the very first day, I had orders coming in.’’
The Egyptian-born Sabet sells about 12 outfits a month, mainly through the Internet, she said.
Nike, the world’s largest athletic-shoe maker, and Speedo, the biggest swimwear maker, also are in the Muslim women’s market.
Beaverton, Oregon-based Nike sponsors Bahraini runner Ruqaya al-Ghasara, who in December won a gold medal in the 200 meters at the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar. She wore track pants, a long- sleeved top and a headscarf with Nike’s swoosh logo.
London-based Pentland Brands Plc, which makes Speedo swimwear, gave full-cover suits to Pakistan’s female swimmers at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, vice president Dave Robinson said.
“Previously, their religious beliefs, combined with the suits available on the market, would have precluded this,’’ he said.
Zanetti, who moved to Australia when she was 2, also wears a headscarf. Her polyester-and-spandex burqini won a public face this year: 20-year-old lifeguard Mecca Laalaa.
“You can’t exactly swim in cotton pants and top,’’ said Laalaa, a Lebanese-Australian student who wears a headscarf.
She qualified as a lifeguard in February after enrolling in a government-sponsored program that encourages members of ethnic communities to join the 115,000 mostly Caucasian volunteers patrolling beaches.
Australia saw one of its worst instances of racial violence in December 2005, when a 5,000-strong mob attacked Middle Eastern-looking people on Sydney’s southern beaches. The riot followed the bashing of two teenage lifeguards, allegedly by Lebanese-Australian men.
Among Australia’s 21 million residents, the number identifying themselves as Muslims jumped 40 percent to 282,000 in the five years through 2001, the latest census figures show.
“In the past, a bronzed Aussie surf lifesaver has been one of those iconic images,’’ said Sean O’Connell, communications manager of Surf Life Saving Australia, which trains volunteer lifeguards. “The burqini is quite revolutionary because it allows for our members to fulfill patrolling obligations and religious requirements.’’
While demand for the burqini has Zanetti struggling to fill orders, she said she is aiming to clothe Olympic athletes.
“We offer something for the girl next door to the extremely modest mom and getting to the top athlete,’’ she said. “It has taken a little girl from Sydney to think of this humungous segment.’’