When Smile13 announced its plans to host an all-women’s “Burqini Day” at the privately owned Speedwater waterpark in Marseille, the French women’s group probably didn’t anticipate controversy.  

The park’s rules only allow standard swimwear during regular hours, and the organizers of Burqini Day promoted the event on its Facebook event page (since deleted) as a space for Muslim women to “enjoy games and park activities while wearing clothing that covers their bodies from their chest to their knees.” But the planned event sparked an angry public debate across France, led to death threats, and to the event’s cancellation this week.

But the controversy over the dress isn’t new: Last month the mayor of Cannes passed a bylaw banning the Burqini from the city’s beaches, calling it a “symbol of Islamic extremism.” Those who violate the rule will be fined 38 euros. A similar controversy erupted in June at a public pool in Brooklyn that offered women-only swimming hours four times a week to cater to the community’s large Hasidic population. Opponents argued public facilities should be equally accessible to all people under the law, and the city agreed to reduce—but not eliminate—the segregated hours.

I spoke with Heather Akou, a professor at Indiana University Bloomington who specializes in fashion design and merchandising of non-western dress, about why this not quite itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny swimwear design is so contentious. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Yasmeen Serhan: So, how did the Burqini come to be?

Heather Akou: Well, the original Burqini was created as a response to a situation in Australia [in 2006], where the volunteer-lifeguard association needed to recruit people from minority communities, and particularly from Muslim applicants. While the uniform for the men was fine, the uniform for the women needed to be a little more modest, so they contracted with this Lebanese woman living in Australia to create a new uniform for the female lifeguards. She’s the one who gave it the name “Burqini.” But kind of like the word Kleenex, it’s a brand name that just has now become very widely used. Most Burqinis you see people wearing in pools or in the media are not official Burqinis, but people call them that I think because the name is really catchy.

Serhan: You mentioned in your writings that the design of the Burqini isn’t actually all that new. How long has this swimsuit design been around?

Akou: From what I understand, “swimming costumes,” as they were called, really didn’t come until the Victorian era. When women would go swimming, there was no particular swimming outfit. Queen Victoria was really a key in making swimming costumes a part of everyday fashion because she decided that she wanted to go swimming but needed to be properly dressed. So her tailors came up with this full-body swimsuit that would allow her to go out into the water and swim just like other people. So the full-body swimsuits were really just like ordinary clothing. It wasn’t until the 1950s, that you really started to see the first one-piece swimsuits widely worn. In fact, in a lot of the world, it’s still not acceptable to go out into the water dressed like that. It’s kind of a uniquely North American, Australian, European thing.

Serhan: Do you find many instances of people wearing the Burqini for non-religious purposes?

Akou:. I’ve read accounts of how some customers buy the swimsuits for other reasons. On a personal level, I’ve noticed at the pool that there are an increasing number of people wearing rash-guard, UV-protective swimsuits. There’s definitely been an increase in people not just wearing your standard speedos and bikinis and one-pieces.

Serhan: With the France controversy in mind, do you think the adoption of the Burqini by non-Muslim or non-conservative women for other reasons, such as skin protection or even comfort, would increase their acceptance?

Akou: The part of the Burqini that non-Muslims would typically not adopt is the part that covers the hair and neck. Though, really, the rest of it—having long sleeves, having pants at the pool—I mean this has become a really divisive issue in France so I can’t say there are a lot of non-Muslims [in France] who are really interested in adopting more modest swimsuits. But speaking about the U.S., there are plenty of people who wear longer outfits for sun protection or for snorkeling or whatever. It’s really not terribly unusual, but what gets people hung up is covering your head. It’s OK when you see Olympic athletes, speed skaters, swimmers, runners. There have been lots of cases where even non-Muslims have covered their heads for performance purposes. During the Sydney Olympics, there was an Australian Aboriginal woman who was a really phenomenal runner and she was definitely not Muslim, but she was wearing a covering over her hair during her events—

Serhan: Cathy Freeman?

Gary Hershorn / Reuters

Akou: Yes, and the idea was it would make her more aerodynamic. But I think, particularly, even in the U.S., the idea of non-Muslims covering their hair is definitely something that people don’t see a need for and aren’t interested in, and it starts to feel uncomfortable. But in France, it’s such a divisive issue that I really don’t see non-Muslims adopting that item of dress.

Serhan: How does this issue with the Burqini Day in France compare with the women-only swimming hours that recently caused controversy in Brooklyn?

Akou: The pool in New York was a case where they had already been offering segregated swimming for a long time, but someone complained about it and it was a municipally owned pool, so technically if it’s city-owned they really can’t be discriminating—it’s against U.S. law. And although you don’t typically think of men as a particularly protected class, certainly U.S. law is clear that you have to give everyone equal access regardless of sex, gender, age, etc.

Serhan: So the cases differ in that the Brooklyn pool is a public facility, whereas the French pool is privately owned?

Akou: If [the Brooklyn pool] had been a private pool, I can’t see where it would have even been a media story in this country because in the U.S. there is such a high premium placed on business doing whatever they want. So if a private business wanted to have hours for only women and young boys, in the U.S., that’s not a problem. I don’t think anyone would think twice about that. I personally know people, groups of women, who have done the same thing. They’ll reserve time at the ice-skating rink or time at the pool on campus, and actually they go so they can swim without wearing Burqinis. They just wear regular one-piece and bikini swimsuits. And the idea is if no men are seeing you, you don’t have to worry about it and you can wear whatever you want. … I’d say, with the case in France, there’s some extreme behavior on both sides. From my perspective, it’s a private pool, so I don’t understand why the private owners of that business aren’t saying, ‘It’s our decision and we can deal with whatever customers we want to.’ Of course it’s also politicians’ right to make a big stink about it. But that doesn’t mean the business has to change their practice.

Serhan: This is shifting gears a little bit, but there’s been a bit of coverage about Egypt’s female beach volleyball team at the Rio Olympics and their uniforms—

Akou: I’m not surprised they’d be wearing uniforms with more covering, they’re certainly not going to wear booty shorts and bikini tops.

Ruben Sprich / Reuters

Serhan: Well their uniforms resemble Burqinis in a way since they have long sleeves and leggings. Only one of the participants chose to cover her hair. Up until 2012, volleyball players had to abide by a strict bikini dress code, but that’s changed. To your knowledge, has the Burqini design been employed for many other practices, like sport?

Akou: Well other reasons I’m aware of are sun protection—and not just people who burn easily, but people who have sun-sensitive conditions, such as lupus, are typically sensitive to the sun. But there are other examples. Nigella Lawson, who is a celebrity chef from the U.K., went vacationing in Australia and wore a Burqini, and she is not Muslim. She said that she really didn't feel like being exposed and showing off her body. She just wanted to have fun on her vacation.