Amal Belalloufi
Last updated: 24 August, 2016

The burkini in North Africa: ‘Most people don’t care’

The burkini, a body-concealing women's swimsuit that fits a conservative Islamic dress code, has stirred controversy in France, but on the beaches of North Africa, it has made few waves.

On the coast of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, women are already wearing increasingly modest outfits — but few can afford the full-body costume.

In Zeralda, a seaside resort in western Algiers, few women dare to wear a swimsuit, let alone a bikini, on public beaches.

Hakima, a mathematics teacher in her 40s, wears a burkini in the sea before wrapping up in a large sarong when she gets out.

“It’s more decent,” she says.

“The all-body swimsuit is a solution for practicing Muslim women who like the sea.”

But some women cover up against their will, like Manel Brahimi, a biology student.

“I love swimming but if I wear a normal swimsuit, people look at me as if I’m a Martian,” she says.

Siham, 24, is also resigned to wearing cycling shorts under her one-piece swimsuit to “avoid being stared at”.

On the beaches of Rabat, swimmers splash around in various outfits including Bermuda shorts, tracksuit pants, leggings, denim shorts, and even suggestive wet T-shirts.

Few wear an actual burkini, a garment that on average costs 500 dirhams (50 euros, $56) — outside the budget of most beach-goers in the Moroccan capital.

The swimsuit was introduced to the country by Moroccans living overseas, says Miloud, a retiree.

“They brought the fashion (of the burkini) here this year when they came on holiday to the beaches” in the conservative north of the country, says Miloud.

Another beach-goer, Fadel, sees the outfit as “a story of big money” that “creates business for Islamic fashion stores”.

“But most people don’t care,” he says.

From bikinis to burkinis

Last week, Nice became the latest French seaside resort to ban the burkini after a string of terror attacks.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the costume was part of a political project based “on the enslavement of women,” and was “not compatible with the values of France and the republic”.

This month, youths on a beach on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica came to blows with a group of Muslim families, reportedly after a tourist snapped pictures of women bathing in burkinis.

But the swimsuit has sparked no such controversy in Tunisia, says sociologist Abdessatar Sahbani.

“Wearing the burkini, which has increased considerably since the revolution (in 2011), hasn’t caused any problems on the beaches,” he says.

“This summer, Tunisians are much more preoccupied with the economic and security situation.”

But changing social mores have given a boost to beach clubs reserved for women and children, such as the “Marina Club” east of Algiers.

The club’s clientele lounge next to a swimming pool sporting a variety of clothes from bikinis to burkinis, far from the gaze of men.

Australian-Lebanese designer Aheda Zanetti (C) says the burkini is a symbol of inclusion not division

The club is entirely staffed by women, from waitresses to lifeguards. Many of them are students.

“It’s a haven of peace, a discreet place for a Muslim woman,” says Ouahiba Chatouri, a retired air hostess in a two-piece swimsuit.

In addition to the exterior wall, another wall separates the pool from a special section for women who wear the full Islamic veil and don’t want to undress in front of other women.

“They don’t appreciate the presence of young boys in there,” says one client.

She says she was surprised at the comparison between the gaze of a seven-year-old and that of an adult.

‘We didn’t yield’

In early August, an article in an Algerian newspaper provoked an outcry on social media for claiming that “nudity” on public beaches had turned them into no-go areas for families.

It blasted Algerian women who “wear skimpy swimsuits as if they were on foreign beaches, and walk along the shore displaying their bodies full of tattoos.”

Yet in the 1990s, mixed beaches and swimsuits were the norm on Algeria’s beaches.

Saida, an English teacher, says the country’s beaches were always mixed until recently.

Now, “the walls have been put up between those who can pay to tan on a private beach and those who, by conviction or obligation, swim in an outfit society deems decent,” she says.

Katia Ouhid, who is in her 50s, says she wears the bikini “on principle”.

“I put on weight when I was pregnant, but I refuse to accept the diktat of society,” she says.

“When the Islamists banned women from going to the beach, we didn’t yield. We went with family and friends and we wore our swimsuits.”

Amina, one of her friends, says society has “regressed enormously in terms of individual freedoms,” and says she misses the beaches where girls used to wear swimsuits in shimmering colours.

“All it needs is a sign at the entrance: ‘Family beach, modest dress required'”, she says.