The New Swimsuit Issue

The full-coverage swimsuit for Muslim women — nicknamed the Burqini — is taking off with secular swimmers too

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Matt King / Getty

Mecca Laa Laa wears a 'Burqini' on her first surf lifesaving patrol at North Cronulla Beach in Sydney, Australia on February 4, 2007.

Move over, Tankini. Since the full-coverage swimsuit dubbed the Burqini (as in burqa plus bikini) hit the international market in January, devout Muslim women have been snapping them up. The polyester suits were designed to accord with Islamic laws that require women to dress modestly and to eliminate the risk of drowning when the yards of fabric used in traditional burqas get soaked. Now, however, non-Muslim beachgoers are getting into the full-covered swim. Whether women are worried about health, weight or the tolls of age, the Burqini offers a comfortable alternative to a skimpy two-piece or clingy maillot.

The demure suits, pioneered by two Muslim women on opposite sides of the globe, are like lightweight, loose, hooded wet suits and hide everything but the face, hands and feet. Australian retailer Aheda Zanetti, 38, says she was inspired to design her Burqini after watching young Muslim girls struggle to play netball in bulky layers. Her competitor, California microbiologist Shereen Sabet, 36, came up with her full-coverage Splashgear suits after searching in vain for Islam-appropriate scuba gear. The UV-resistant, stretchy swimsuits start at $90 and have found upwards of 6,000 buyers--most of them online--in locations as varied as Malaysia, South Africa, Mexico, Ireland and the U.S. "I'm a very small business with a product the whole world wants," says Zanetti.

Conservative Christians, cancer patients, burn victims and senior citizens, among others, have shown surprising interest. Joanne Martinez, 37, of San Clemente, Calif., bought a Hawaiian-print ensemble to stave off chills during late-night dips. Her mother Norma Suarez, 69, got a suit because her medications make her skin sun-sensitive. "We're both hooked," says Martinez. Meanwhile, Kathleen Petroff, 59, of Helendale, Calif., bought her Splashgear suit for a snorkeling trip, after weight gain from multiple-sclerosis treatment made her old suit unappealing. If not for Sabet's design, she says, "I would have missed swimming with the dolphins."

Anne Cole, the designer whose 1997 invention of the tankini was a landmark for conservative swimwear, lauds the reasoning behind the modest suits. "A woman should, above all, find a suit she can feel comfortable and be herself in," she says. But the new swimsuits have drawn criticism from both East and West. "This is like playing a game with Allah," asserted a poster on the website ShiaChat, complaining that the stretchy fabric reveals curves. Zanetti's design has also brought out anti-Muslim sentiment since she's become a high-profile member of the Islamic community. She has been called a terrorist online; she says she has even received a death threat.

Some feminists charge that burqas in any form are offensive to women. "Clearly you're not considered a full human being if you're mandated to cover yourself head to toe in this tent," says Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of Equality Now, the international women's-rights watchdog. Sabet responds that Muslim men too have a dress code: the Koran forbids them to wear saffron or silk or expose skin from navel to knee. But Imam Mohamed Magid, who heads a moderate mosque in Sterling, Va., calls debate over Islamic clothing misdirected. "I wish there was more talk about women as leaders rather than talk about whether nail polish is acceptable in Islam," he says. "We need to move forward."

Still, in this bare-it-all age of the string bikini, when young girls take wardrobe cues from Paris Hilton and body-image pressure is intense, the Burqini swimsuit is making a statement. And that's the point, the designers say: the suits allow women, Muslim or not, to choose comfort over conformity. "I know it sounds like an oxymoron," says Sabet. "But this is really about freedom."