Covering Women on the Beach

A History of the Burkini’s Turbulent Decade in the Sun

Robert Rauschenberg, Veils, 4, 1974. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.
Robert Rauschenberg, Veils, 4, 1974. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.


EXACTLY A DECADE BEFORE France’s recent wave of ‘burkini’ bans garnered international attention, a new bathing suit designed for Muslim women became a media sensation for the first time.  The burkini, whose cheeky name is a portmanteau of burka and bikini, did not attract headlines because it represented any particularly special new silhouette or technology, however. Made of water-repellent, quick-drying synthetic material that covers the body and hair, the two-piece garments looked very much like wetsuits routinely donned by surfers, divers and swimmers for decades. Adapted to fulfil the needs of women who practice hijab, they were made available in a few different styles and colours, and designed to ensure modesty, UV-protection and freedom of movement in the water. Most women who bought these suits intended to use them for exercise and leisure purposes at public pools and beaches as they went about their daily lives or on holiday. But quickly, the burkini became a lightning rod for press coverage, public scrutiny, cultural commentary and political manoeuvring, particularly in and among nations with minority-Muslim populations.

Australia played a central role in this story. The name ‘Burqini’ was trademarked by Aheda Zanetti, a Lebanese-born Australian fashion designer and self-described ‘Aussie chick,’ whose company Ahiida began selling modest swimsuits in 2004. The following December, violence broke out on Sydney’s Cronulla Beach during a protest when a mob of white, native-born Australians shouted xenophobic, racist chants and viciously attacked beachgoers whom they believed to be Arab. A series of bloody confrontations between white and Muslim Australians ensued. The Cronulla Riots, as these events were dubbed, coincided with a broader wave of xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe and the United States, and they were reported on widely by the international press. In response, Australian officials, working with the non-profit Surf Life Saving Australia, staged an intervention called ‘On the Same Wave.’ The program sought to recruit young people from Middle Eastern (mostly Lebanese) family backgrounds into surf lifesaving programs, established bastions ‘of white Australian culture and still a heartland of the country’s sun-bronzed, heroic self-myth.’1 The central figure that emerged in subsequent media coverage of On the Same Wave was Mecca Laalaa, a twenty-year old student who became Australia’s first Muslim female life-saver – in a burkini.

Young, well-spoken, attractive, studious and dedicated to improving her fitness in a mixed-sex space so that she could contribute to public safety, Laalaa presented a model minority citizen and a perfect poster girl for Surf Life Saving Australia’s centenary in 2007. Laalaa’s success in On the Same Wave, and her ability to complete its rigorous program wearing a swimsuit designed by a successful Lebanese-Australian entrepreneur made for good press and public relations. Images of her on the beach in her special Ahiida-designed Surf Life Saving Australia uniform circulated in Australia and throughout the world, with the burkini itself eventually drawing as much (or more) attention and analysis than the riots that spurred its global debut in the first place.

The burkini’s rapid ascent to media celebrity was shaped by contemporary geopolitics as well as longstanding historical discourses about the relationship between women’s bodies, women’s clothing and what many political theorists since Plato have called ‘the body politic.’ Because women have persistently been identified and read as natural repositories of cultural identity, their bodies (including what they wear) tend to take on additional salience in national crises, intercultural encounters and periods of social change. Before this pattern was exemplified by the burkini, it was manifested in the histories of the two garments from which Ahida’s swimsuit derived its name. The burka and the bikini, though possessing different sartorial histories and geographies of origin, set a precedent and provided scripts for how the burkini would be mediated.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the forms and meanings of the bikini and the burka were produced in tandem with each other and with wider debates about religion, gender roles, national identity and international relations. The bikini was introduced in July of 1946 by the French designer Louis Réard, at a time when Europe was still reeling from the Second World War, and the Cold War had just begun. Réard named his creation after the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where that summer the United States held a huge nuclear testing program. Operation Crossroads, as it was called, detonated more than twenty atomic devices, resulting in widespread environmental destruction and contamination as well as the long-term displacement of the island’s residents. Just as US personnel stencilled the names ‘Gilda’ (after Rita Hayworth’s femme fatale character in the movie of the same time) and ‘Helen’ (of Troy) on the bombs they dropped on Bikini, Réard picked a name for his bathing suit that reflected the potentially explosive and even destructive powers of female sexuality unleashed in the postwar world. When he showed the bikini at a poolside fashion show in Paris, the designer was forced to hire exotic dancers to model the risqué garment, which was small enough to ‘be pulled through a wedding ring.’ In its early years, the bikini was banned on some European beaches (including sites on the French Atlantic Coast) even as it was on its way to becoming a national and global wardrobe staple.2 

Robert Rauschenberg, Veils, 1, 1974. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

The modern history of the burka, though it is a much older and more varied garment than the bikini, has also been marked by military encounters, dispersion, debates about gender relations and of course controversy in and beyond the Islamic World. As Leila Ahmed has shown in her book A Quiet Revolution, practises of covering and veiling among Muslim women experienced a resurgence in the second half of the twentieth century, related in part to the rise of Islamist movements, but also to changes in cultural expression, producing new aesthetics and even garment industries.3 Burkas and other veiling garments acquired national and regional associations, but also circulated widely through channels of travel, commerce and migration. Their spread was continually characterised by attempts to regulate their use, form and public visibility, as well as by seemingly endless streams of cultural, academic and political commentary. Discussions about nationhood, international relations and modernity have all cohered around the burka and the bikini, with each being variously deemed revolutionary and regressive, liberating and confining, dangerous and harmless, dirty and pure, desirable and prohibited.

When the burkini appeared in the news a decade ago, it thus carried with it a dense web of historical associations, political connotations and moral valences. The histories of the bikini and the burka – including the ways that each garment has been framed as the other’s antithesis – played an important role, along with the initial Australian context, in shaping how the burkini was represented and interpreted in the new century. While the new swimsuit attracted limited notice and commentary in many places, in Europe and the Anglophone World, modest swimsuits and the figure of the burkini-clad women (in actuality, often Mecca Laalaa) were appropriated as catalysts for contemporary debates about the possibilities and limits of cultural pluralism in an era of economic globalisation, mass migrations, war and terrorism and ethnic nationalist movements.

The wave of media coverage that appeared in the burkini’s wake converged around a few dominant narratives, which echoed earlier discussions of the bikini and burka and still remain in circulation today. In the first, the bathing suit was framed as a foreign fashion incongruous with modern ‘Western’ lifestyles and political values (often signified by the bikini or young women wearing bikinis). Predictably, some commentators recycled shopworn Orientalist narratives about the ‘backwardness’ and ‘foreignness’ of Islam and its contributions to an ongoing ‘Clash of Civilisations.’ For example, during the opening monologue of his television show Late Night with Conan O’Brien, the American comedian quipped that the burkini was ‘perfect for the Muslim woman who loves to swim, but hates being stoned to death.’ A related vein of media coverage depicted the practice of hijab and its associated garments as visible markers of foreignness and even alienation from the modern world. In its regular series on ‘extreme fashion trends,’ Marie Claire magazine dressed a non-Muslim editor in a bright blue burkini and sent her on a ‘Fashion Road Test’ around Los Angeles. In a multipage photo spread, she posed on bench next to a display of wrinkly plastic alien dolls, one of which grasped an American flag. ‘Alien nation: Wear a burkini and worlds collide,’ the caption declared. Another image showed her feeling ‘at home in her burkini’ outside of the Venice Beach Freak Show. In a corresponding video feature on Marie Claire’s Youtube channel, the editor inexplicably tested the burkini by walking around Midtown Manhattan, no swimming pool in sight.4 

In framing the burkini as a symbol of alien-ness, ‘extreme fashion’ and gender oppression, much mainstream media coverage resonated with contemporary political movements that aimed to restrict immigration and introduce bans on visible markers of Islamic identity or Islamist politics in the name of national security and public health. These include the transnational growth of immigration bureaucracy and surveillance regimes directed at Muslim migrants and citizens, as well as growing political movements framed around defining ‘national values’ and selectively enforcing their application among minority communities. For example, in Australia in 2007, the government of Prime Minister John Howard, who argued publicly that burkas were irreconcilable with national values, introduced a citizenship test for immigrants and renamed the Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous affairs as the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

Coverage of the burkini that emphasised the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ and the importance of rescuing women meshed with media tropes that structured the ongoing ‘War on Terror’ waged by the United States and its allies (including the UK and Australia) in the wake of the September 11th attacks and subsequent ones in Europe, Indonesia and the Middle East. Notably, the surge of burkini media coverage in 2007 coincided with President George W. Bush’s announcement of a massive troop surge for Operation Iraqi Freedom, an intervention often framed by policy makers as a humanitarian mission that would rescue and liberate women in particular. For as one historian reminds us, in this war and in others, the bodies of women and girls tend to ‘make cameo appearances as emblems whose symbols of oppression (the burka, for example) can rally sentimentalised, self-congratulatory support’ for controversial policies.5

On the Same Wave’s public relations campaign, including the program’s adoption of Zanetti’s design for its uniforms, centred on the notion of rescue as well. Through teaching swimming and life-saving skills to immigrant communities, Surf Life Saving Australia contended, it was protecting immigrant and ethnic residents from the ocean’s dangers – even though the original danger to Arab-appearing beachgoers had actually been white Australian rioters waving national flags and using broken beer bottles to preserve their control over public space and resources.

However, perhaps because Mecca Laalaa and Aheda Zanetti, two poised and successful Australian women, remained the primary figures attached to the burkini, much mainstream international media reportage focused on the swimsuit’s ability to bridge cultural differences and accelerate integration. This strain of burkini coverage, divergent but in some ways structurally similar to those outlined above, depicted the suit as a laudable symbol of (and technology that brought about) assimilatory multiculturalism through compromise. Many reporters framed the garment as one that mediated between poles encoded by the burka and bikini. One Tasmanian paper described the swimsuit as ‘middle ground,’ while the Hindustan Times succinctly computed, ‘Burka+Bikini=Burkini.’ In this narrative, readers were encouraged to see the burkini not as a static marker of difference, but as technology through which difference was being managed – and lessened – via the realms of athletics, leisure and consumer culture.

Many articles in this vein depicted two poles of bodily coverage and non-coverage, represented by the bikini and the burka, as competing – but not temporally or geographically coeval – value systems and aesthetic regimes. Here, the burka represents the past and the foreign, while the bikini signifies the present and the norm. This can be seen in Newsweek’s story on the proliferation of modest swimwear, which explained, ‘American Muslims, especially those in the second generation, say they live in two worlds–the traditional, religious world of their parents and the world of the rest of us.’6 A similar sentiment characterised public relations materials for the On the Same Wave program, which referred to the Cronulla Riots as ‘a clash between locals and visitors.’7 Much of the commentary that framed the burkini as a laudable marker of cultural pluralism did so within a rhetorical framework that judged assimilation to dominant cultural norms as progress, with the burden for enacting progress placed squarely on the bodies of women. When Laalaa zipped up her Surf Life Saver burkini, according the Sydney Morning Herald she somehow ‘unzipp[ed] racial tensions’ which had previously ‘divided parts of Sydney.’ 

Importantly, the ways in which media outlets and public relations material framed the burkini as a symbol and mode of assimilatory multiculturalism often involved deliberately ignoring and recasting the words and actions of its wearers as well as the modern history of hijab fashions. Most obviously, Anglophone and European-language coverage of the burkini ignored preexisting incarnations of modest swimwear sold in predominantly Muslim countries, preferring to emphasise a sartorial genealogy that framed the garment in a relationship to the West and especially to the bikini. However, depictions of burkini-clad women as outsiders caught between worlds or engaged in acts of compromise explicitly ignored how individuals such as Zanetti and Laalaa explained their own motivations and experiences. This can perhaps best be seen in the 2007 BBC documentary Race for the Beach.

An investigation of the Cronulla Riots and the On the Wave program, Race for the Beach focuses on Laalaa and her attempts to become a surf lifesaver. Throughout, the documentary portrays Laalaa’s actions as that of a cultural diplomat promoting assimilation amidst ‘political pressure’ to ease inter-ethnic tensions in Australia and provide an example of modern Muslim womanhood. To a careful observer, however, the documentary’s narration frequently contradicts what Laalaa herself says about her identity and actions. For instance, she does not describe herself as any type of ambassador; instead, she clearly states that she is participating in On the Same Wave in order to achieve goals she has set for herself. In a telling scene, the reporters follow Laalaa out shopping, where she looks at handbags and brightly coloured headscarves in a store. They ask whether these garments qualify as hijab, and Mecca replies that covering, to her, means dressing modestly without drawing attention, and these items allow her to do so. Apparently ignoring her words, the narrator states ‘If she’s to become a lifesaver Mecca must further compromise her religion’ by donning beach attire, patrolling beaches full of scantily-clad bodies, and even potentially saving drowning men. This is after she has clearly explained hijab and stated that saving a drowning man would not contravene her religion because it would be wrong to not take-on the responsibility of saving him if one could. This externally-imposed emphasis on ‘compromise,’ which persists throughout the program, illustrates the rhetorical paucity of assimilation and progress, as well depictions of the burka and bikini as indices of identity poles, in understanding what the burkini means to its wearers. It also indicates how easily journalism focused on interpreting women’s bodies and clothing, even coverage framed as investigatory or justice-oriented, tends to recapitulate gendered tropes about female bodies being malleable repositories of culture rather than fully-formed citizens and political actors.

 Robert Rauschenberg, Veils, 3, 1974. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

Robert Rauschenberg, Veils, 3, 1974. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

In the decade since it debuted, the burkini, along with the original publicity photos of Mecca Laalaa, have resurfaced in the limelight at frequent intervals. At first, news outlets traced the growth of the burkini industry, charting the emergence of new designers, markets and wearers. With increasing frequency, however, the burkini appeared at the centre of stories about women in modest swimwear being excluded from public and private pools and beaches in England, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Morocco and Egypt. Officials have justified these bans by citing fears about aquatic contamination, the erosion of secular values, the spread of extremism and the potential loss of tourist dollars. The proliferation of burkini bans in France this summer, along with photos of police forcing women to remove their modest swimsuits – on beaches that directly face the nation’s former colonial holdings, no less – have ignited international controversy. Meanwhile, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, 2016 became the deadliest year ever recorded for migrant deaths on the Mediterranean Sea.  

In this context, memories of the burkini’s debut a decade ago, in addition to anxieties about terrorism and the global refugee crisis, have begun to inspire impassioned responses to the current wave of bans on modest swimwear. Several articles have recommended that France learn from ‘Australia’s Lesson in Burkini Politics’ and embrace the bathing suit ‘as part of the solution’ to promoting integration. Meanwhile, the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has argued that Marianne’s exposed breast, depicted in some artistic renderings of the allegorical feminine figure, symbolises the incommensurability of the burkini and the modern nation. Both responses carry forward a long tradition of not only imagining the body politic in the shape of a woman, but also believing that the violence and inequalities wrought by war, globalisation, colonialism and ethnic nationalism can be managed through constantly surveilling, interpreting and disciplining what women wear by the water.

Shanon Fitzpatrick is a Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University in Montreal.

Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art (

  1. R Taylor, ‘Not So Teenie Burqini Brings Beach Shift,’ Reuters, 17 January 2007 

  2. For a larger understanding of Operation Crossroads and its cultural meanings, see Sasha Davis, The Empire’s Edge: Militarization, Resistance, and Transcending Hegemony in the Pacific (University of Georgia Press, 2015). For an investigative report on the use of Rita Hayworth’s image, see the blog Conelrad Adjacent’s story at 

  3. L Ahmed, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America, Yale University Press, 2011. An introduction to Ahmed’s work can be read in the Financial Times:  

  4. Glyde, “Are You Ready for the Burkini?” Marie Claire

  5. E Rosenberg, ‘Rescuing Women and Children,’ Journal of American History 89.2, September 2002, p. 20 

  6. L Miller, ‘Surf’s Up!’ Newsweek, 29 January 2007, p. 15. 

  7. See Surf Life Saving Australia’s centennial report:[email protected]/bb8db737e2af84b8ca2571780015701e/845def90bfdc637aca257235007e7501!OpenDocument