For decades women of Muslim or Arab descent who wished to preserve their modesty at the beach or in the pool have been restricted to swimming fully clothed – usually cotton pants and a long top, which become heavy in the water. So in 2003, mother-of-four Aheda Zanetti designed an innovative solution to this age-old problem: the Burqini.
The head-to-toe two-piece suit is made from a high performance innovative fabric and takes its name from the Burqa, a traditional outer garment worn by many Muslim women that covers their head and body. Wearing a head cover is a particularly important part of Muslim religion and identifies women as followers of Islam.
Zanetti’s inspiration came from her adopted country. At the age of two, she moved to Australia from Lebanon, and growing up experienced first hand the frustration of not being able to participate in the active lifestyle the climate permits.
“Living in Australia, sport and swimming is a large part of our lives from a young age and I didn’t want anyone to miss out on it,” Zanetti explains. “Yet when we were searching to find out if there was anything out there suitable for young Muslim girls, we found out there was nothing.”
Zanetti began designing the swim and sportswear range in 2003, and through trial and error found a fabric that both looked and felt good. It was in determining a suitable fabric for the design that proved the biggest hurdle, rather than any objections in the Islamic community. “I thought there was going to be a lot of dispute, but it ended up being quite the opposite – the response was just so fantastic that we had to quickly produce something within days.”
Recognising that she had created a truly unique product, Zanetti moved to secure IP protection ahead of its official launch. She applied to register the design – which was approved – and then successfully trade marked her logo and company name. “I work extremely closely with my IP attorney.
“We had a new design … it was totally original in every which way, it was going to benefit a lot of people and I believed in it,” Zanetti recalls. “But everyone else wanted to jump on the bandwagon, so if I hadn’t thought about IP protection, all my hard work could have gone down the drain very quickly.”
Zanetti has since encountered similar products both here and overseas, but proactive protection of her design from its inception has meant that one such incident has already been settled out of court. She says the element that makes her design unique from any other offerings on the market is the Hijood – a variation of the hood shaped Hijab worn by Muslim women to cover their head – which is connected to the garment and allows for maximum flexibility and movement.
Reading through the testimonials on the Ahiida website, it is overwhelmingly clear that Zanetti has captured a loyal client base and has changed the lives of countless women across the globe. Her success with an international market has in part been assisted by her participation in Austrade’s New Exporter Development Program, which is designed for small and medium-sized businesses with limited or no exporting experience. Among other requirements, the program’s participants must have a product, service or protected intellectual property with clear export potential, as well as a clear growth strategy.
“Austrade could see the potential [in the product] and they have supported me with any kind of information that I have needed for the overseas markets,” says Zanetti. “It’s a fantastic program that provides so much help for small businesses, like mine, that are trying to take on the world.”
The Burqini is now distributed worldwide through online sales and key retailers in Bahrain, Berlin, Dubai, France, Mauritius, Singapore, Switzerland and the UK. The product range has expanded to include slim, modest and active fit swimming suits, as well as suits for ball sports and martial arts.
The tide is high
Early in 2007, the Burqini was launched into the surf life saving arena, allowing female Muslims to uphold their Islamic beliefs while participating in an iconic Australian activity. The Burqinis were designed with the distinctive red and yellow colours of the surf life saving uniforms, receiving enthusiastic support from Surf Life Saving Australia officials and members.
Zanetti hopes more Muslim women will be able to achieve their sporting goals, like the surf lifesavers. “When I see a woman doing the best she possibly can and going for her dreams, I really admire that and that is my inspiration. And if I can enable Muslim women to achieve their dreams by wearing one of my designs, then it’s all been worth it.”