Why you should care
Will this new swimwear for conservative Muslims sink or swim?
Until she got married two years ago, Safaa Mohamed used to wear a burkini when she went swimming in the sea. But her husband put a stop to that — even though he enjoys the water every summer in the coastal city of Alexandria. “My husband says it’s inappropriate because [the burkini] is too tight and [shows] my legs,” says Mohamed, a 28-year-old homemaker.
Now, she has found an answer — an extra-long loose burkini that frequently comes with a burqa — that’s dividing Egypt over questions of gender, religion, safety and discrimination, all centered on an unlikely subject: swimwear. Across the world, the more regular burkini has in recent years sparked a debate over whether it represents a sign of liberation for conservative Muslim women who couldn’t swim in public otherwise or one of religious oppression. In Egypt two years ago, several swimming pools banned the burkini, citing a very different reason: safety. They argued that the bodysuit made it hard for clubs to determine if a swimmer had wounds that could contaminate the water.
This August, the Egyptian government — which had wavered in its response to the 2017 decision by some pools — ordered all clubs to ensure that no woman is barred from swimming for wearing a burkini as long as it’s made from the same material as standard swimwear. Yet that move, which came amid a growing consensus from experts that the burkini is no more dangerous than a bikini, has coincided with the emergence and rapid spread of Egyptian designers and firms selling the new extra-long “abaya swimwear.” That’s sparking a fresh debate over Islamic swimwear in the Arab world’s most populous nation, even as the new trend spreads beyond the country’s borders.
I thought I wouldn’t get into the sea again, but this swimwear saved me.
Safaa Mohamed, Egyptian homemaker
Rehab Shaaban, designer and founder, alongside her sister Shaymaa, of HYMR Factory, launched the line of abaya swimwear in 2017. Now, these extra-long suits represent 80 percent of their sales, with the balance made up by traditional burkinis. The firm also exports the extra-long burkini to the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia and even to the U.S. and Canada. Hoda Labib, a tailor and designer who launched her line of abaya swimsuits in Monufia Governorate in northern Egypt in 2018, already has customers in the U.A.E., U.S., U.K. and Turkey, as well as Egypt. At Cairo’s El-Youssef store, owner Mohamed Ibrahim says the abaya suits already constitute half his swimwear sales to women.
These new swimsuits are drawing criticism both from those who argue that conservative women shouldn’t swim at all in shared public spaces with men and from those who say they’re too restrictive for the wearer and are potentially dangerous because they could carry water. But designers reject both arguments, presenting the abaya swimsuits as a happy medium. And for women like Mohamed who love swimming but need to please their conservative husbands, they’re proving transformative.
“I thought I wouldn’t get into the sea again,” she says. “But this swimwear saved me.”
The ordinary burkini — a Sharia-compliant swimsuit — covers the whole body except the face, hands and feet, with an over-garment that is usually 27 inches long. That itself has proven a lightning rod for debates over individual rights and religious freedom across the world. Beyond Egypt, some hotels in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia have banned women wearing them from using their pools, claiming they’re dangerous — though design experts internationally have since shown there’s no evidence to back those assertions. In June, two public pools in France shut down after women violated a burkini ban.
The abaya over-garment goes much further — it can exceed 54 inches, which means it’s full-length. It often comes with a face-veil. All of which makes it dangerous, according to some experts and users, including those comfortable with the burkini. “Very tall swimsuits are not safe for women in water, because it may hinder their movements,” says Fawzy Gomaa, swimming trainer and founder of Olympus Sport Academy, a Cairo-based swimming school for men, women and children. “It also carries water.” He says each person should have the freedom to wear what they want while swimming, as long as it’s safe for them. “Swimsuits should be tight to help people swim safely,” he adds.
Some women question the ultra-long suit on aesthetic grounds. Yasmeen el-Saba, an unveiled handicrafts entrepreneur, swims in burkinis that she designs herself, despite once being stopped from swimming at a pool. She knows the humiliation of being judged based on what one wears but says the abaya suit is “not good-looking.” She also shares concerns over its safety.
But designers of abaya swimwear insist their suits are safe. “I wonder why people say that long models are not safe for women. Don’t you hear about women who wear bikinis and drown?” asks Shaaban, whose longer swimsuits are between 54 inches and 58 inches long. “If people found any problem with the swimsuit, you could find them complaining.” None of her customers have complained, she says. Instead, she adds, “many veiled and face-veiled women thank us for this swimsuit because it [has] helped them swim with their children or family, without being afraid of violating their religious values.”
The abaya swimsuits are also drawing criticism from a religious viewpoint. Amna Nosseir, a member of parliament and a professor of Islamic philosophy at Al-Azhar University — one of the Islamic world’s most respected schools of learning — questions why women who are conservative enough to want to wear the abaya would want to swim alongside men at all. The face veil, she says, wasn’t originally a part of Islam and came from the Jewish Torah. Yet if a woman is wearing the abaya swimsuit out of ultraconservative views, it makes little sense because it “won’t ever be loose after she leaves the water,” she says. “I recommend that women go to females-only beaches, but not mixed beaches.” Muslim women, she says, shouldn’t wear anything revealing, transparent or eye-catching.
But Labib in Monufia says she uses thick material for the swimsuits that ensures they “never become tight even after women get out of the water and they never make women heavy in the water.” In fact, she says, it was because she noticed that traditional burkinis were becoming tighter and tighter — “I myself felt shy to wear one of them,” she says — that she began designing the abaya swimwear.
Yet the rapid growth of interest in this new extra-long swimming costume is also part of an economic shift within the country’s swimwear industry. Until 2016, says Ibrahim of El-Youssef, most traders used to import swimwear from Turkey and China, where they were mass-produced and cheaper. That year, the country’s trade ministry issued a decree requiring importers to register at a national regulatory body, which led to imports of some commodities decreasing by 70 percent. Swimwear became harder to import, making Egyptian manufacturers more competitive. Swimsuits imported from Turkey now cost more than $65, while Egyptian-made swimwear starts at less than $20. And 70 percent of swimwear is now locally made, says Ibrahim.
Meanwhile, Shaaban had been experimenting. She copied Turkish swimsuits but made them longer. She used Photoshop to post on Facebook images of what a longer burkini would look like. It drew more interest than traditional swimwear, so she first designed a 43-inch suit. “It sold like hotcakes,” she says. “So I started making longer models.”
The cheaper costs of Egyptian swimwear — coupled with the country’s unmatched cultural influence in the region — help explain why manufacturers like Shabaan and Labib are now exporting the extra-long suits too. As with the burkini, expect the heated debate over the abaya swimsuits to go global. None of that will matter to Mohamed, though because she can once again swim in the Mediterranean Sea.