The burkini is an option, not oppression, say those opposed to ban

The recent court decision overturning one French town's ban on the burkini is unlikely to put the debate about the body-concealing swimwear to rest. Some of those who have decried the ban say all the controversy won't stop women from wearing what they want.

People who sell and support the burkini say banning it takes away freedom from women

There have been protests in France and abroad ever since some towns in France started banning burkinis earlier this month. Here, a woman wearing a burkini joins a protest outside the French Embassy in London. (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

Recent attempts in France to ban the burkini have prompted protests and court challenges. 

Some of those who've defended the body-concealing swimsuit say that while they wouldn't wear one themselves and don't necessarily agree with the religious associations it carries, they will defend women's right to wear what they want.

On Friday, the top court in France overturned one town's ban on the burkini, a ruling that is likely to set a precedent across the country.

The decision comes after several Muslim women were ordered to remove the body-covering swimwear on French beaches. Some burkini wearers were also issued fines.

Sonu Kilam is the co-founder and designer at East Essence, an online store that sells modern and traditional Islamic clothes. East Essence started to sell burkinis about six years ago, she said, after receiving requests from customers — specifically, Mormon customers — who were looking for modest active wear.

"[We] came across the burkini and thought, 'Perfect, it will work for all our customers,'" Kilam told CBC News from Newark, Calif.

The company's various burkini options represent about 15 per cent of its sales, she said, and it's not only Muslim women ordering them.

Non-Muslims also in the market for modest swimwear

Kilam recently got an email from a Canadian woman who wrote, "It's hard for women like me who are 40 or older and don't feel comfortable showing skin to find swimwear in Canada."

Other burkini customers include women with skin conditions, Kilam said, and the company recently made a custom burkini for a plus-size woman who wanted something to wear for water aerobics.

There have been reports that burkini sales have increased since the controversy started, but Kilam said she hasn't noticed any significant changes.

France's prime minister, Manuel Valls, has expressed support for local bans of burkinis, saying the swimwear is based on the idea of 'the enslavement of women' and therefore not compatible with French values. (The Associated Press)

Kilam doesn't wear a burkini herself and says she doesn't necessarily agree with some of the ideas behind the origin of Muslim body coverings for women. Still, she says, clothing has nothing to do with radicalization.   

"I really hope it (the burkini controversy) calms down eventually, or it's going to promote more tensions otherwise," she said.

Feiza Ben Mohamed is the leader of a Muslim organization in Nice, one of the French cities that banned the burkini, and has been working to get the bans overturned.

She wears a bikini to the beach, but many of her friends wear burkinis or long dresses, she told CBC Radio's As It Happens.

Although France's prime minister, Manuel Valls, said the burkini is based on the idea of "the enslavement of women," Ben Mohamed sees the swimsuit not as a sign of oppression but of freedom — the freedom to wear what you want. 

"They do it by themselves because they want to go out," Ben Mohamed said. "When someone is radicalized, they don't go to the beach."

Supporters of burkinis say they allow women who want to dress modestly to be active in public. (Tim Wimborne/Reuters)

Algerian businessman Rachid Nekkaz doesn't agree with the burkini or niqab, the full Muslim face covering, but he's paid $355,000 in fines on behalf of women in France who were fined for wearing a niqab in public. He's now offering to pay for women fined for wearing a burkini.

He told As It Happens that he doesn't agree with either piece of clothing but not because they oppress women.

The face and body coverings are not the best way to integrate into French society, he says, but women still should have the right to wear them.

"Do you know the women who are wearing a niqab or burkini are totally free? We are not in Afghanistan. Most of them have French parents," he said.

'It's not symbolising Islam'

Aheda Zanetti, who created the burkini, says banning the swimsuits because they oppress women shows a lack of understanding about why she made them in the first place: to give women options.

"Our sales have increased, and the more they actually ban it, or the more they actually reject it, it doesn't mean a woman will ever stop wearing it," she told the Reuters news agency. "We've introduced this new lifestyle for women that never had it."

Aheda Zanetti, seen at Australia's Bondi Beach in 2008, says she invented the burkini after watching her niece play sports in the heat and realizing she didn't have clothing that could be both functional and modest. (Peter Rae/Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media/Getty)

Zanetti created the burkini after watching her niece playing sports in the Australia heat and realizing she didn't have functional clothing that would allow her to be active while still dressing modestly, she wrote in the Guardian.

"It was about integration and acceptance and being equal and about not being judged," she wrote.

"It's just a garment to suit a modest person, or someone who has skin cancer, or a new mother who doesn't want to wear a bikini. It's not symbolising Islam."


Nicole Riva is a multi-platform writer and social media presenter for CBC News based in Toronto.