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'I Just Want To Go Swimming': Burkini Creator On French Ban


In France, a high court has suspended a ban on burkinis. The full-body swimsuit has been at the center of a month's worth of controversy there after 30 or so towns and cities banned women from wearing the modest swimsuit on their beaches. For a little context here, we called someone who is familiar with the garment.

AHEDA ZANETTI: I think we've sold about 700 swimsuits since 2008.

MCEVERS: Aheda Zanetti is the creator of the burkini. She says she could've used one when she was a kid growing up in Australia.

ZANETTI: I missed out on a lot of sporting activities during my years because I wasn't comfortable in wearing the required team sport uniform or wearing a bikini of some kind. Not that I opposed to it - it's just not for me. It's not who I am. I just didn't feel comfortable.

MCEVERS: The idea for the suit came to her a little over 10 years ago. She was watching her niece play a game of netball - it's a popular sport in Australia. It's kind of like basketball, with players running up and down the court in lightweight jerseys. But her niece was wearing long sleeves, track pants and a hijab. And Zanetti says she always looked uncomfortable and sweaty.

ZANETTI: It just got me thinking that I - something needs to be produced for women and girls to wear while they're actually playing sports and if they choose to be modest.

MCEVERS: Such a garment did not exist, so she set out to create one herself.

ZANETTI: I've been sewing since the age of 12, so I had the ability to create, design and produce it.

MCEVERS: The final product was a two-piece, water-resistant getup with long sleeves, long legs and a hood to pull over your hair. Zanetti says she liked the way it felt when she put the burkini on for the first time.

ZANETTI: It made me, like, somehow, you know, complete now. I can fulfill a lifestyle that I've always wanted without the worry about what I was going to wear and how I was going to wear it or, you know, am I going to be acceptable, am I not? And I just want to go swimming.

MCEVERS: Zanetti says it was difficult to enter the Muslim market. Her first customers were not Muslims. They liked the burkini because it helped keep their skin protected from Australia's sun. Muslim bathers took some convincing.

ZANETTI: And I said yes, you know, you can now wear this swimsuit and encourage you to go swimming and, you know, enjoy the waters with your family and so forth. Oh my god, what's - what do you mean? What's that look like, a swimsuit for us? You've got a two-piece swimsuit for a Muslim woman (laughter)?

MCEVERS: As for the uproar about the French law that has now been struck down, Zanetti says it missed the point. For her and other Muslim women, the suit stands for freedom and confidence.

ZANETTI: Not because they're enforced in. They're comfortable in it. I'm comfortable wearing it. I feel proud that I can choose to be modest. Modest is not a rude word.

MCEVERS: French officials for the moment agree. That's Aheda Zanetti, the inventor of the burkini. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.