Many Muslim women consider it “haram”, or forbidden, to expose their bodies at all, let alone in front of men who are not their husbands or, in some cases, close relatives. Religious scruples urge for maximum coverage when in public, a concept that made certain activities, such as swimming, difficult to negotiate. The commercialisation and increased availability of the burkini, a full-body swimsuit, has changed this. The advent of this article of clothing has enabled Muslim women to participate in this aspect of cultural life and relaxation.
Sources indicate that the suit, originally designed in Australia by Aheda Zanetti, covers the whole body except for the face, the hands and the feet, while being light and flexible enough for swimming. Zanetti recognised that there was a lack of sportswear for Muslim girls and women that would meet the requirements of both modesty and physical activity.
Many people do not understand the need for burkinis because they do not realise that, aside from the inclination towards modesty, women’s dress is very much an issue of the gendered gaze. In single-sex pools, where men are not allowed, the degree to which women cover up is not considered a problem.
The burkini has therefore given many Muslim women and girls the opportunity to comfortably participate in physical activity and other parts of cultural life that require active wear.
According to National Geographic, daily life in Zanzibar centres around the sea, yet the vast majority of Zanzibari girls never learn to swim. This can be attributed to certain aspects of Islamic culture and the lack of modest swimwear prior to the burkini. An NGO called “The Panje Project” has overcome these challenges to make it possible for local women and girls to get into the water, not only teaching them swimming skills but also water safety and drowning prevention techniques.
In its 2014 global report on the issue of water safety, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that drowning caused 372 000 deaths each year. That is 42 people who die from drowning every hour, despite the widespread availability of prevention strategies. Furthermore, in 2011, Zanzibar was struck by tragedy when a Spice Islander boat sunk and most of the locals on board drowned.
This illustrates what makes such initiatives so important. In five years The Panje Project has run programmes across Zanzibar and taught about 7 000 people to swim. Zanzibar local Khadija Sharriff, who works with this civic project, told CNN that the going was not always easy: “When we first started, the elders in the village just couldn’t put their finger around this concept of taking their daughters to the beach and teaching them how to swim. They just felt like – no, absolutely not, we can’t give them that kind of freedom,” she recalls.
She added that it was not until a prominent elder in the village enrolled his daughter in the swimming programme that others started to do the same.
The project continues to make strides. CNN reports that in 2018 alone 633 females learned to swim through The Panje Project, thus joining the ranks of a new generation of Zanzibari women and girls who no longer need to live in fear of the water that surrounds them.