Designer burkini makes waves and changes attitudes at Egypt’s luxury resorts

Fashionable 'swimsuit for all' has sparked a modest revolution

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Once deemed stuffy and not inclusive, pool resorts on Egypt’s upmarket northern coast are welcoming more women in traditional Islamic dress, thanks in part to a new swimwear line.

The “swimsuit for all” burkinis were launched in April by Egyptian fashion influencer Hadia Ghaleb, who lives in Dubai. They marry modesty with high fashion and have sparked a quiet revolution.

For the first time in years, the summer holiday season is coming to an end without many reports of hijab-wearing women being banned from swimming pools at hotels and resorts frequented by the country’s upper classes.

Lawyer Aya Elfardy, 34, lives in Dubai but spends the summer holiday in her home country of Egypt. She posted a picture of herself in a burkini for the first time on Instagram this year, as she felt more confident about her look.

“Although I have other burkinis that I had bought from international brands, I always felt uneasy wearing them, as people [in upmarket areas] look down upon hijab-wearing women … but Ghaleb’s collection made me more confident,” she told The National.

“I knew everyone would say ‘wow’, because it’s Hadia Ghaleb’s trendy burkini,” she said.

Modest shoppers such as Ms Elfardy can find bright, colourful patterns with names like Bubble Gum or Mermaid in a variety of styles, from trousers and long sleeve tops to matching hijabs and sarongs. For the more demure, there is an all-black offering.

Being at the forefront of burkini fashion has a price tag, though. Each Hadia Ghaleb suit comes to around $200 — but it may include a free gift: social change.

Rana Beheiry, 34, an Egyptian who also lives in Dubai and has 43,000 followers on Instagram, said Ms Ghaleb’s line made a difference to her summer holiday experience.

“When I put on Hadia’s burkini I felt more accepted by those around me,” she added.

“Classism is becoming quite obvious among people in Egypt and it’s especially noticeable in high-end places, where people view veiled women as belonging to a lower class,” she said.

Both women have been affected by burkini bans in the past.

Ms Elfardy said in 2015 she tried to buy a chalet in one of Cairo’s North Coast resorts but then realised the contract barred women from entering swimming pools while wearing burkinis.

In 2016, Ms Beheiry said she was banned from using the pool at one of the resorts in Gouna.

Such incidents prompted the Ministry of Tourism to issue a memo in 2017, stressing that it was prohibited for hotels or resorts to ban veiled women from using the pool, as long as the burkini is made out of swimsuit material.

But complaints about burkini bans persisted.

Those who oppose burkinis argue they are unhygienic and unsanitary, claiming they are not made of swimsuit material. Another argument, said less publicly, is that since it is almost impossible for women to wear bikinis or even a one-piece swimsuit in public beaches in Egypt, it is their right to ask for exclusivity at places where they pay to enjoy a swim.

Burkini proponents say these are futile excuses to hide what they describe as a rising discrimination against veiled women among the upper class in a country whose population is predominantly Muslim.

Thirty-eight-year-old teacher Eman Hussein, who lives in Alexandria, said that four years ago she was forced out of the swimming pool of a resort between Safaga and Hurghada on the Red Sea in eastern Egypt despite wearing an appropriate burkini she bought from abroad.

“While arguing with the hotel worker about it, another visitor went into the pool with short cotton clothes that are totally inappropriate for the pool,” she said. “At that point I realised it wasn’t about the burkini’s material, it was the fact that it covered my whole body.”

Some say the popularity of Ms Ghaleb’s line is giving ammunition to the argument that it was never about hygiene.

Speech and language therapist Fatma Farouq, 42, is used to phoning hotels before travelling to find out their rules on burkinis and avoid any disappointments.

“A couple of years ago I called a hotel in Ain El Sokhna [a popular seaside destination on the Gulf of Suez] to ask if burkinis were allowed and the answer was no.”

But this year, she said she was allowed to swim in the same hotel wearing her burkini, not one of Ms Ghaleb's.

It is exactly this kind of discrimination Ms Ghaleb was hoping to play a part in ending.

“When I launched my brand the first thing I thought about was that there are many girls being banned from beaches in France and unfortunately many places in the Arab world and Europe,” she told Brut Egypt in May.

“For me, one of the reasons for launching this brand is that I could be one of the reasons to solve this problem. I don't know if what I did would solve the issue or not. But at least it's a step forward to change our mindset about the veiled or unveiled girl.”

It's a step forward to change our mindset about the veiled or un-veiled girl
Hadia Ghaleb, influencer and fashion designer

Pundits agree that classism has been at the heart of the burkini controversy all along.

“Swimwear is not only something that we put on but it’s also a message,” said Dr Taha Abu-Hussein, professor of sociology at Al-Azhar University and the American University in Cairo. “A message that says I am in a higher status; I am richer. We do not carry our wealth in a bag with us all the time; rather, it is reflected in the form of possessions and that’s what some people want to prove.

“The drive to buy things increases when a ‘famous person’ buys or wears a certain product, people then take him or her as a model, even if they can’t afford it, to win his/her social status and privileges.”

Soon after their release, Ms Galeb’s swimsuits were sold out. despite what many regard as an inflated price tag of 3,650 Egyptian pounds in a country where the average monthly income is 5,000 pounds.

Some believe, however, that the Ghaleb swimwear fever is not only motivated by a desire to assimilate into the upper class but also by the fact that the line is truly fashionable unlike the traditional dark-coloured, plain-looking burkinis.

“Hadia presented the burkini in international standards, in a design that allows it to be used in more than one form and in new colours resembling a piece of art, so it truly attracted people’s admiration,” said fashion blogger Noura Alkholy.

However, not everyone fell in love with it.

“I don’t see Hadia’s swimsuit suitable for veiled women, as it reveals the details of your body,” said Ms Hussein.

This story was published in collaboration with Egab

Updated: September 04, 2022, 1:00 AM