Growing up, 'burkinis' were alienating - innovative swimsuit designs are a giant leap forward

Ayan Omar 
Ayan Omar faces numerous barriers as a young Muslim woman who swam Credit: John Lawrence

When I first started wearing the hijab as a young teen, I knew I would spend the rest of my life dealing with ignorance. I never imagined that it would affect or limit my love for sports. At 13, maintaining modesty was not a priority for me, but I felt uncomfortable with my body, as do most teenagers at that age, and while other girls around me did not fret over their hair or body as much as I did, I dreaded being so exposed.

Swimming caps were not always useful, and makeshift DIY swimsuits drew too much unwanted attention. A tunic length T-shirt with waterproof spandex leggings soaked with water, clinging to your thighs, is about as uncomfortable as you can imagine. Even if it was just girls surrounding me, I felt self-conscious and constantly embarrassed. Nike’s hijab swimsuit would have been a blessing to 13-year-old me, and I cannot imagine what it would do for female Muslim athletes.

Swimming was a large part of my life as a young teenager. It became a family activity I eagerly anticipated. But every time I went, I would notice the Muslim mothers sitting on the sidelines, disengaged with their children in the pool – not out of choice, but because their clothes did not accommodate to the water. I would notice young Muslim girls show discomfort in their improvised burkinis and perhaps envy the others. There were fewer and fewer visibly Muslim women. Until one day, there were none.

Growing up as a Muslim in the UK, shopping for swimwear was challenging, an experience I am sure many young Muslim girls can relate to. Wearing the hijab means dressing with a degree of coverage that is at odds with the limited swimwear industry options: a bikini or a one-piece. During my adolescence I struggled with the evolving clothing norms, and because of my insecurity in my fashion choices, dressing modestly was daunting.

For many of us, burkinis were our only option, but I disliked them. They mostly came in bright colours, with tacky designs and patterns that made me want to hide. They just were not appealing – I desired stylish yet effective sportswear. I dreaded the embarrassment and awkwardness of having to explain to people why I was dressed that way. Burkinis reminded me of how othered and alienated I was, and it heightened my reluctance to swim. I focused more on what people were thinking of me and less on how much I enjoyed swimming. To a teenager, that is crushing.

It reminded me of the stigma, rooted in rampant Islamophobia, that modest wear has attached to it in many Western countries. Despite this, burkinis began to rise in popularity among our community. There was finally a way for Muslim women to enjoy the fun of swimming without limiting themselves due to clothing restrictions. For many of us this new hijab swimsuit is an encouraging and warm gesture.

But let us not forget the brands who were innovating in this space before the multinational sportswear conglomerates got involved. Australian brand Ahiida, for example, owned by the originator of the burkini, Aheda Zanetti, launched in 2004, and was known as the originator of the “hijood”, a mix of the hijab and hood. It was through them that I first found burkinis that were stylish and modest.

Nike’s Victory swimsuit is at a higher price point than the community have so far been offered, but its nylon fabric is more water repellent and lighter. Contrast that to polyester burkinis, which tend to cling to the body, revealing shape and defying the idea of modesty, and were only really suitable for paddling rather than deep swimming. Now, young girls and Muslim female athletes get better choices. They will not be limited to makeshift modest swimwear. They will have the choice to carry a brand that supports inclusivity.

The absence of cool and functional modest swimwear has been the barrier to swimming in my life, and to many women I know. Muslim women face mockery and humiliation simply for choosing to veil. This giant leap forward might be the change that allows Muslim women finally to feel comfortable in the pool.