Aheda Zanetti is founder and designer of Ahiida®, one of the world’s best known modest swimwear and sportswear brands. Designed to assist Muslim women to comfortably and modestly take part in competitive and recreational sports, her swimwear is also in demand from women who want sun safe garments and styles that provide more coverage.
Zanetti’s designs and story have resonated culturally, socially and politically both here and overseas and appear in some surprising contexts. The name of her modest swimwear design, the Burqini®, was selected as Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year in 2011 and her story was adapted for the short play The Modest Aussie Cozzie by award winning writer Alana Valentine. Zanetti’s first name is listed on the online parenting resource BabyCenter India under the article for baby names inspired by fashion designers. Aheda (Zanetti) appears alongside Stella (McCartney) and Gabrielle (Chanel). In 2008 Bahraini sprinter Roqaya Al-Gassra wore Aheda’s modest Hijood® sportswear when competing at the Beijing Olympic Games.
It was the aftermath of the riots between Lebanese Australians and Anglo Australian youths at Sydney’s Cronulla beach in 2005 that transformed Zanetti’s small business. The federally funded ‘On the Same Wave’ program run by Surf Life Saving Australia aimed at building bridges and increasing the ethnic diversity of surf life saving clubs by running training programs for young Muslims. Mecca Laalaa was one of their first recruits and when a photo of her wearing the Burqini® in SLSA colours went viral, Zanetti was inundated with orders. The Australian Trade Commissioner credited her with rebuilding Australia’s international reputation as an egalitarian society after the racist perceptions generated by the riots.
In their words
“I’m very proud. I really do believe that this was meant to happen, that this is a product that needed to come up. I’m very happy that I was the one who was chosen to fulfil this need for our communities …”
“I saw my niece playing in a netball match, and she was the only one veiled. She was all red, wearing her uniform, a pair of tracksuit pants and her skivvy on top. I think that was when I felt that I needed to do something … It started on my lounge room floor. My babies were still babies, so I waited until everyone went to bed. The design itself wasn’t the hardest; it was actually studying the fabrics. I knew what I wanted, somehow.”
“I looked overseas to find fabrics that would suit the swimsuit, which needed to be modest wet or dry. It so happened it was just round the corner from us, a local swimwear fabric supplier who fixed it to our liking. The biggest problem was how to keep your chest modest, so it wouldn’t cling to your body when wet … I introduced prints with transfers thick enough so you didn’t feel exposed.”
“There weren’t many swimsuits around for women who wanted to have that skin protection or just be modest. So I introduced a sun-safe suit as another product to cater for many women; it didn’t matter what race, religion, size or colour. Every woman deserves to go and swim and enjoy the surf, sun and sand in the Australian way.”
“When I found out about the name Ahiida, that it means ‘to promise’, I thought it would be the perfect name for the start of this business.”
Interview with Aheda Zanetti [13:43]