On Aussie beaches, burqa plus bikini equals burqini

It's a sweltering day, and the beach is packed with suntanned bodies. Girls in swimsuits lounge on the sand while their boyfriends cradle surfboards.

Mecca Laalaa is the lone exception. Instead of a barely there bikini, she's in a burqini – a top-to-toe two-piece lycra suit complete with hijab, or Islamic head covering.

Loose enough to preserve Muslim modesty, but light enough to enable swimming, the burqini, taking its name from the burqa, is at the forefront of a dramatic shift within Australia's iconic surf lifesaving clubs.

No longer wanting to be associated only with bronzed, blue-eyed action men, Surf Life Saving Australia is attempting to better reflect the country's multicultural mix.

Ms. Laalaa is one of 24 young people of Arab descent who signed up for a 10-week surf lifesaving-training course.

"Normally, I'd wear cotton trousers and a top but they get very heavy in the water. This meets our cultural requirements," she says, preparing to go out on a beach patrol. The burqini that she wears was specially designed to allow Muslim women like her to join one of the surf lifesavers clubs.

For a century, surf lifesavers have been the embodiment of Australian beach culture, as quintessential an icon as the Anzac soldier and the outback jackaroo, or cowboy. With 115,000 lifesavers patrolling the continent's beaches and more than 300 clubs, Surf Life Saving Australia is the nation's largest volunteer movement, its unpaid members responsible for saving more than half a million lives in the past 100 years.

But the movement has also been deeply conservative, built on a stern, militaristic tradition fostered by soldiers returning from the world wars. Until 1980, women were banned from joining.

The overhaul coincides with the 100th anniversary of the first surf club, at Sydney's famous Bondi Beach, as well as the Year of the Lifesaver.

This initiative, aimed at diversifying the clubs, is also in response to events that shocked Australia and the world just over a year ago.

A few days before Christmas 2005, gangs of whites and ethnically Middle Eastern young people clashed around Cronulla Beach.

The fighting revealed a deep gulf between the white Australians of mainly British and Irish heritage and recent immigrants from Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries.

The lifesaving program is a small step intended to help heal the wounds left by the Cronulla violence.

"I was shocked by the magnitude of it, so to have a group like this training as lifesavers is of tremendous importance," says Jamal Rifi, the president of the community sports club from which most of the trainees were recruited. "It's about counteracting the negative stereotyping of Muslims, which has been very bad over the last five years. Our greatest enemy is ignorance."

The campaign to recruit Australians of Middle Eastern heritage has been funded by a grant of AU $600,000 (US $ 467,000) from the federal government.

The original 24 in the group has been whittled down to 14, the dropouts realizing they were not strong enough swimmers or finding that the schedule clashed with other commitments.

The grueling training regime has included first aid, radio communications, rescue drills, and fitness tests, and culminates this week in written and practical tests. If successful, the recruits will become fully qualified surf lifesavers, entitled to wear the organization's distinctive red and yellow caps.

The group's trainer, Tony Coffey, says the burqini makes swimming more difficult compared with being dressed in a bikini or swimsuit. "It's the biggest hurdle the girls face. But we can't do anything about it, it's part of the deal. They just need more intensive training."

The new recruits will be expected to volunteer for one weekend a month, rescuing swimmers and dealing with jellyfish stings, surfing injuries, and lost children.

"We're breaking down social barriers," says Malaak Mourad, a student whose parents emigrated from Lebanon in the 1970s. "Most of the lifesavers are Anglo-Saxon. We've been getting a lot of attention from the public but I think it's admiration more than anything negative."

To be sure, the push to diversify the surf lifesaving clubs coincides with an overall change in Aussie beach culture.

In Sydney, beachside suburbs that until a decade ago were populated by working class Australians have been gentrified and colonized by professionals, many of them expatriates.

At the Coogee surf lifesaving club, around 15 percent of the 600 active members are foreigners, including individuals from Britain, New Zealand, France, Germany, Chile, and the United States.

Claire Folland from Edinburgh, Scotland, was attracted by the fitness regime and social life provided by membership of the club. "Initially, it was very hard because I wasn't very good in the ocean. There's not much swimming in Scotland unless you're drunk or mad," says Ms. Folland, who works in occupational health and safety.

But rigorous training and the demands of being on regular beach patrols have honed her swimming skills.

Not even an initial fear of sharks has put her off. "I figured I'd swim next to one of the fatter members of the club and hopefully they'd get eaten instead of me," she jokes.

Ordering the locals to avoid dangerous currents has not presented problems for Liz Couch, who is from San Diego, Calif.

The former professional lifesaver moved to Sydney two years ago and decided to join the club to meet new people.

"If people can't swim properly and you can, they really don't have much choice but to listen to you if you're coming to rescue them," she says.

The lifesavers of the future will still be tanned and fit, and wear the distinctive red and yellow swimsuit and cap, but their accents are as likely to be Arabic or American as the familiar Aussie twang.

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