Lebanese-Australian Aheda Zanetti first came to the public’s attention when her controversial line of swimwear got caught up in a media storm last month. “Islamic swimsuit ban causes a splash,” “Burqini row opens new chapter in Muslim culture war” the salacious headlines read. What was once a niche online swimwear company known only to an intimate circle of Muslims living in Australia soon became an international sensation.

The story of the French woman who wore an all-in-one bathing suit to a public pool back in August created a debate that seemed to be centered more on the troubling Western view of Islam than the unconvincing hygiene argument cited by French officials; a debate which the burqini’s creator, Lebanon-born Zanetti, says she was not prepared for.
Born in the northern coastal city of Tripoli in the late 1960s, the woman behind the original burqini brand “Ahiida” grew up in a conservative  Muslim family in Lebanon, where she says many women had deep-seated anxieties about swimming in public due to religious prohibitions.
Zanetti tells The Daily Star that after moving to Australia early in her childhood this problem did not go away. Instead, being a Muslim Arab woman in an open and liberal country presented its own challenges. “As an active person who liked to participate in community activities and sport, I found myself restricted due to cultural and religious beliefs,” she says. “I think this is what spurred me to design something that would change that.”
What resulted was the lightweight polyester head-to-toe bathing suit that the media would come to so affectionately dub the “burqini.” The garment Zanetti designed was the first swimwear of its kind to respect Islamic values at the same time as enhancing the lifestyle of the active Muslim female.
Zanetti says the summer controversy did nothing but boost her already thriving business and provided the coverage she needed to help reach the world’s many Muslim women worried about public swimming. One month on she says she is still going through the order forms and letters of support that bombarded her inbox.
“When it all blew up I had anxiety attacks,” she laughs. “The media attention was just unbelievable.” Zanetti received 60 messages overnight, 60 percent of which were from non-Muslims wanting to cover up, and her small business was soon under strain from the global demand. “It goes to show there is a real market for the burqini among all kinds of women.”
She says she is over the moon with how well her business has been doing and is proud that people from her birthplace in particular are taking an interest. “I have a lot more direct customer inquiries now and loads more interest from Lebanese clients than I did before this whole thing.
“We [the Ahiida brand] have had great interest from individuals in Lebanon,” Zanetti says, however she is worried there may be too many risks involved in doing wholesale business with the country: “It is still quite a gamble going into the Lebanese market, especially with the current government uncertainty,” she says. “And I don’t know how the country as a whole will react to my product. It is still quite a conservative society and women may not feel comfortable ordering from us still.”
But Zanetti says she has not ruled out establishing links with Lebanese businesses and trading wholesale in the future: “It will take longer than others, but I think they will come around,” she says confidently.
Take a trip to the coast of Tripoli today, however, and you may well see the polyester get-up in all its glory. Zanetti says her extended family in Lebanon are now sporting her infamous bathing suit, which has allowed some to enjoy the Mediterranean waters for the first time. “They just love it,” she says.
Ask her about the case that sparked it all off and what she thinks about France’s decision to ban the burqini in public pools, and you can see Zanetti is still doggedly determined to challenge the nation’s misconception. “It’s just crazy that they used hygiene as a reason – I mean if it was really about that they would ban men with hairy backs and those wearing long shorts. Does the French Prime Minister [Nicholas Sarkozy] have nothing better to do? He should stick to his day job.”
She says the Islamaphobic argument that was levied by certain Muslim groups was also not a necessarily helpful one. “I think it is hard to tell what it [the French case] was really about – it could have been one of a number of reasons. It is better to just laugh about it rather than getting into political arguments – I know I am,” Zanetti adds, reflecting on a time she will not be quick to forget.
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