Muslim women enjoy beaches across Metro Detroit, thanks to the burkini

On a typical hot day in Metro Detroit, area lakes are full of beachgoers. People head for the cool water under a 90-degree sun in bikinis, boardshorts, burkinis and the occasional speedo. The scene is….wait, burkinis?

Yes, there are an increasing number of women wearing the burkini. It's  a mashup term of the words burka (a full body modesty dress worn by some Muslim women) and bikini (the ubiquitous two-piece swimwear).

But why would a woman go to the beach in a head-to-toe swimsuit?

“To enjoy a day at the lake like everyone else,” explains E.H. (identified by her initials). The West Dearborn resident says she chooses to wear the burkini because it is comfortable, breathable, dries quickly and keeps her cool.

But she doesn't care for the name.

“To be honest, I didn't know what they called it until what happened in France,” she says.

E.H. is mota hajib a, a Muslim woman who adheres to Islamic modesty standards. The dress code in Islam is not one-size fits all; modesty standards vary in the faith based on the school of thought one subscribes to.  It can be anywhere from full body covering like the infamous burka to a simple head covering and loose fitting clothes. 

The recent burkini ban in certain cities in France, including the August incident where police officers enforced the ban by making a woman partially disrobe in public, has brought the burkini into the global spotlight. But the garment has become commonplace attire across Metro Detroit's beaches and swimming holes for several years (it was invented in 2004).

The names burkini and burqini are trademarked by the original Australian-Lebanese designer and inventor Aheda Zanetti and her company Ahiida. Somewhat similar to a wetsuit, the burkini has a loose-fitting style with the top section draping like a skirt.

The most common version is made of 100 percent polyester, and it comes in a variety of brands and colors sold all over the world, including some department stores and online. Non-Muslim women have also been known to wear the burkini; Ahiida estimates that 40 percent of their recent sales are to non-Muslims.

Controversial in some places, the burkini's popularity is growing. Hiba Ismail, a salesperson at  Aseal’s hijab in Dearborn, says her store has sold an estimated 30-40 this summer at with prices at $75 and $85 depending on the length and style.

And while women who have chosen to wear the burkini in France have experienced outright hostility, things are a little different in the U.S.  

Haifa (preferring to be identified by her first name only), a Dearborn Heights resident,  also doesn’t care for the name.

“I don’t like the name since it sounds like the bikini," she says.  "I’d rather it be called hijabi swimwear or just swimwear.”

To Haifa, the name "burkini" causes confusion because it alludes to two extremes of dress. A burka is an uncommon form of hijab (modest dress) that became known to most people during the days of Taliban-led Afghanistan; therefore, it's a politically charged term. The bikini, of course, is on the other end of the spectrum. Fashioned in 1946, the bikini was also banned at times.

Most modest dress is somewhere in the middle, Haifa points out—the burkini is as far from the burka as it is from the bikini.

The common response when asking several Muslim women if they’ve received any backlash while wearing the swimwear in Metro Detroit is “No, never.”

Ismail has an insight as to why this is.

“I think it’s because there is mutual respect," she says. "We respect others’ privacy and freedoms; they respect ours.”

Apart from selling the increasingly popular burkini, Ismail says she's been wearing them herself for about three years.  

“I’m not comfortable in regular clothes when at the beach," she says. "These are comfortable, and they dry fast. They are good for Muslim women to keep their modesty and hijab.”

Haifa has not noticed any unwelcome reactions.  She says she never thought about what people might think when they see her wearing it. "I was only considering my own comfort,” she says.

Haifa considered style when purchasing her swimwear but ultimately chose her burkini because it was loose-fitting. She says the breathable quick-drying material keeps her cool despite the appearance that may suggest the contrary.

Before the burkini, she says, Muslim women had few options when going to the beach. Mostly they would wear everyday clothes that were as close to swimwear as possible, wanting to retain their modest dress but still be able to enjoy a day at the beach. In this situation, comfort was almost non-existent. Haifa says she used to burn in the sun before she began wearing the burkini.

The garment allows for a measure of comfort and freedom that allows Muslim women to enjoy the sun “like everyone else,”  says E.H. She says she loves the fact that she can now be with her family in the water without feeling uncomfortable.

“My family is so happy that I finally decided to buy one," she says. "I am able to swim and spend more time with my kids when we go out to the lake.”
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