By Beh Lih Yi
KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The woman who invented the burkini has reaped a tenfold jump in sales since France banned her swimwear, and says her coveralls have opened a whole new sporting life for Muslim women.
Thousands of women in Europe - many non-Muslims - now buy her swimsuit to cover up at the beach, while many Muslims use the burkini to work out more freely.
No matter the buyer, designer Aheda Zanetti said her business had boomed with the controversy, which saw police parading French beaches to root out burkini-clad offenders.
"Whoever it was in France (that banned the burkini) has done so much good for my business and for women who thought they could never buy a swimsuit like this," said the Lebanese-born designer, who has lived in Australia for more than 40 years.
Zanetti said her invention had encouraged many more Muslim women to take part in sports as it gave them an unprecedented confidence to work out with modesty, in keeping with Islam.
"It was all about women's rights, it was all about choices," Zanetti told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
The burkini - a linguistic mix of bikini and burqa - is in fact neither, but is simply a loose-fitting swimsuit that leaves only a woman's face, hands and feet exposed.
Dozens of French towns banned it in August last year, saying the burkini defied French laws on secularism.
A court overruled that ban, saying the garment posed no threat to public order.
The crackdown followed a series of deadly attacks in France by Islamist militants but also raised questions about the place of France's large Muslim and Arab population in its society.
Many conservatives and right-wing French supported the ban; civil liberties campaigners, feminists and Muslims opposed it. The schism was further fuelled by footage of police trying to enforce the ban on a woman relaxing on a crowded beach in Nice.
Zanetti, a former hairdresser, designed the swimsuit in 2004 so that Muslim women who choose to wear a head covering could still participate in water activities and other sports.
Now plenty of non-Muslim women want one, too.
Sales have jumped from an average 200 a month to 2,000 since the ban, with most orders coming from Europe, she said.
Forty percent of orders are from non-Muslims, be it cancer survivors, body-conscious mothers or women who want more sun protection for their skin.
Zanetti - whose designs include an athletic veil called the "hijood" - is far from the only fashion designer competing for a slice of the lucrative Islamic clothing market.
Nike launched a hijab for female Muslim athletes in March, becoming the first major sportswear brand to tap the market.
London-based womenswear brand Aab and Japanese retail chain Uniqlo design clothing for the so-called modest market.
DKNY, Mango, Tommy Hilfiger and Zara all have "Ramadan" collections, while Dolce & Gabbana has a hijab range.
Conservative Muslim clerics consider sports for Muslim women as immodest but Zanetti said the competition signalled confidence there would be greater freedom for Muslim women.
"They wouldn't be doing that if they don't believe this is a market that need to grow - and it is growing."
"Muslim women in sports are increasing," she said during a recent visit to Malaysia for an exhibition on Muslim women.
Zanetti hailed reforms in Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam, letting women attend sports events from 2018 and the appointment of the country's first female head of sports.
Female participation in sports has been a thorny issue in Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most gender-segregated nations, where women cannot exercise with men and there are no public sports facilities for women.
"That's a start, that's fantastic... the door is opening."
"There are women out there that are building the confidence, defending their rights. There are still a lot more women that need to do that but at least the door is open now," she said.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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