x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Burqini swimwear makes a splash

A woman thrown out of a swimming pool in France for wearing a burqini has become an ambassador for Muslim women.

A woman at Jumeirah beach in Dubai wearing one of the burqinis designed by Jenny Nicholson. A woman wearing one of her suits was banned from swimming in a pool in France.
A woman at Jumeirah beach in Dubai wearing one of the burqinis designed by Jenny Nicholson. A woman wearing one of her suits was banned from swimming in a pool in France.

They live more than 4,800 kilometres apart, have different faiths and have never met - but one thing has united the two women in a political cause célèbre. Carole is the 35-year-old woman thrown out of a swimming pool in France for wearing a burqini and whose treatment has sparked such controversy that she has become an unwitting ambassador for Muslim women across the globe. Yesterday she was joined in the spotlight by Jenny Nicholson, the Dubai fashion designer who created her swimming costume and has joined the outcry against the ban.

Mrs Nicholson said she was reluctant to make the garment a political issue but was unable to hold back her incredulity at objections to it as being "unhygienic" by the French authorities who forbade its use at a public swimming pool. "My swimsuit is a fashion statement, not a political statement," she said. "I have never laughed so much as when I read about the MP who wants to ban my swimsuit as a militant provocation. It made me feel Inspector Clouseau must be alive and well and making a living as a French politician."

The mother of six at the centre of the storm, identified only as Carole, bought the Dh419 (US$115) MyCozzie swimming costume during a holiday in Dubai earlier this year so she would not have to expose herself while swimming with her family. The costume is sold widely throughout the UAE and Middle East by Mrs Nicholson, who owns the Jenny Rose fashion and maternity wear chain, and it will soon be available at the international department store Debenhams.

Carole - who converted to Islam at the age of 17 - was ordered out of the public swimming pool on her third visit by a lifeguard on the grounds that the suit was unhygienic. The Australian-born designer said such claims were ludicrous. "It is not unsafe and certainly not unhygienic. That would mean all swimsuits are unhygienic. "I developed the MyCozzie swimsuit in Dubai for my conservative customers who had a need for a swimsuit that gave them the freedom to swim and exercise. It is made from the same fabrics as ordinary swimsuits, fully UV protected, chlorine resistant and entirely appropriate for recreational swimming. The suggestion they are any less suitable than other swimsuits is complete nonsense."

Mrs Nicholson, 42, a mother of three, originally designed the three-piece Lycra and polyester bodysuit four years ago for a pregnant Saudi princess who wanted to preserve her modesty. When the royal customer put in an order for 30 more, she realised there could be a market for Muslim women looking for a more conservative way to dress in the pool. She launched the MyCozzie in 11 different styles, from three-quarter length to full-body with a detachable hijab and built-in bra, and was taken aback when it became a surprise hit across the globe.

While she was reluctant to reveal sales figures, 80 per cent of her orders come from GCC countries, while the remainder are internet orders from as far afield as Britain, North America and Australia. Mrs Nicholson, who is not Muslim, dresses her own children in the bodysuits for protection against the sun and said: "They look just like rash guards [light, protective tops sometimes worn in surfing and other watersports].

"As soon as I saw the picture of Carole, I recognised my own design. She was wearing the Georgie, which was named after my 11-year-old son. "We call it conservative rather than Islamic swimwear. It is for anyone, whether they are Muslim, at risk of skin cancer or just modest. "There is a mass market for this. I have had women cry because they have been able to swim for the first time. One woman swimming at the Atlantis hotel in one told me that before she could only sit on the sidelines and watch, but now she could get in the water with her children. It is about giving women a choice."

She insisted there was no "religious or political aspect" to the stand she has taken. "I really don't know why it was banned. I cannot understand it. It is not covering the face so it is not a hazard. France has made a stance and I think it would be very silly if other countries followed its example." Whether French fashion stores decide to stock burqinis is another matter, given it was described as a "militant provocation" by André Gérin, a French Communist MP.

Carole, who has complained that she was the victim of discrimination, said the costume "allows me the pleasure of bathing without showing too much of myself, as Islam recommends". She dismissed suggestions that she had seized on the issue as a political stunt. "My only combat is for the right to bathe with my children. That is it, pure and simple." It is the latest debate with Islamic dress at its heart in France, where five million Muslims live, the largest number in a western European country. The hijab was banned from schools five years ago and two months ago the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, declared that the head-to-toe burqa imprisoned women behind netting and was unacceptable in the country.

Following the president's comments, a cross-party "mission of information" was set up with 32 MPs to consider whether such clothing for Muslim women should be outlawed. But Carole, who wears only a headscarf, told the French newspaper Le Parisien that, "The burqini has nothing to do with the burqa. "I am against the burqa, firstly because we must adapt to the customs of France and then for reasons of security; anyone could hide themselves under it to leave with a child at the end of a school day."

She said her husband was, like her, a French citizen and "not fundamentalist at all ... He leaves me totally free in my movements and I have no connections with any association." Once her children were old enough, she said, she hoped to return to work even if that meant removing her headscarf. She also rejected claims by some politicians that she was trying to provoke French public opinion, pointing out that on two previous visits to the same pool she had gone swimming in her burqini without a problem.

"I had telephoned several pools to ask if the integral swimming costume was allowed," she said. "Two said formally that it was not and the third said bring it and we will see. I was allowed to enter and also to buy 10 hours of pool time." Only on the third visit to the pool in Emerainville, east of Paris, was she told by the head lifeguard that she must leave the water. Her attempt to lodge a formal complaint with police failed because the pool management was held to be doing no more than enforcing rules applicable to all users.

A regional official in charge of the management of pools, Daniel Guillaume, said the same regulations requiring women to wear swimming costumes also prevented male swimmers from bathing in everyday shorts instead of swimming trunks. "These clothes are used in public so they can contain molecules, viruses, et cetera which will go in the water and could be transmitted to other bathers," he told the Associated Press. "We reminded this woman that one should not bathe all dressed, just as we would tell someone who is a nudist not to bathe all naked."

Despite the official line, however, many in France believe the law should curb the extent to which women cover themselves in public. Mr Gérin, who led calls for a ban on the burqa prior to Mr Sarkozy's speech, described the burqini as "ridiculous" and an obvious provocation, while a centre-Right deputy, Lionnel Luca, like Mr Gérin a member of the mission of information, said it was an "appalling and intolerable" case.

Meanwhile, Carole has reportedly suggested she may be prepared to move abroad if regulations in her country do not become less discriminatory. "If I see the battle is lost, I cannot rule out leaving France." The Emerainville mayor Alain Kelyor said the controversy had nothing to do with Islam. "That type of suit does not exist in the Quran." crandall@thenational.ae tyaqoob@thenational.ae