Vaimoana Tapaleao is the New Zealand Herald's Pacific Affairs and People reporter.

Kiwi kids making happy splash in burkinis

Disney-themed burkinis are making a splash in New Zealand, spurred by a woman's desire to help Muslim girls and women lead more active lives.

Merissa Santoso has lived here for about five years. A keen swimmer, she sought to buy a burkini - modest women's swimwear covering the head and body - to wear in public.

However, she found they were not available in New Zealand.

"I had a problem - I like to go swimming, but I can't. There was nothing available for me, so I thought other people might have the same problem."

She said she wanted to encourage Muslim women to to exercise and not be afraid of going to a public swimming pool.

"I [saw] there was a need for this burkini thing because nobody was selling it before."

Santoso, who lives in South Auckland, started importing burkinis and opened her online store, Chador Couture: NZ Islamic Boutique.

As well as offering different coloured burkinis, the shop has a range of abayas, or cloak-like dresses, scarves and kaftans which have been popular with non-Muslims.

Her burkinis for young girls come in brightly-coloured three-piece sets: A top, pants and mini hijab head cover.

"We've got them in Frozen, Minnie Mouse, Cinderella and all these princess [prints]," she said. "The kids, they like it. They want to be like their mum. And they like it because it has all this Disney stuff on it. People like their little children to wear it as well, so that they get used to it.

"It is optional. But it's obligatory when ... say a girl has her period, then from that point you have to cover yourself."

Their most popular product was the burkini range for teenagers and women. Santoso said the girls' burkinis were becoming increasingly popular as more people found out about them.

The garment was invented by Australian-Lebanese woman Aheda Zanetti in 2004, after trying to come up with suitable sportswear for her young niece.

Zanetti has since popularised the burkini - a combination of the words burqa, the garment worn by Muslim women, and bikini.

Although many people see it as being just for Muslim women, burkinis have been popular with body-conscious women, those wanting more modest swimwear or to protect their skin from the sun.

In the past week, there has been controversy surrounding the swimwear after several French cities banned them at beaches, citing threats to public order.

Santoso said the bans were a shame, given the reason they were created in the first place - to give women the freedom to live normally.

One of her customers and now friend, Sumaya Syed, said she had bought burkinis for her young daughters Sidra, 2, and Mehreen, 3, who loved being able to swim together with mum.

"We cover up most of the time for religious reasons. I feel that teaching them this at this age, they grow up and know that this is how we dress."

This year's Rio Olympics saw a number of athletes covered up during competition.

US fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first American athlete to compete in a hijab.

- NZ Herald

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