The Islamic beachwear known as the burqini – the head-to-toe swimsuit designed by a Lebanese Australian and seen commonly in swimming pools and beaches in Sydney and Melbourne - has caused a stir in Europe and been banned in French pools.
A 35-year-old woman known to French newspapers only as 'Carole' was ordered to leave a public pool on the outskirts of Paris, ostensibly because her swimsuit constituted a “hygiene problem”.
But her removal from the swimming complex has been interpreted as the latest chapter in the fight between the French Government and fundamentalist Muslims as the debate on women's clothing and head coverings continues to rage in France.
The woman has now accused the pool of discrimination, describing her ban from the pool as “segregation": "I must fight to try to change things. . .if the battle is lost, I cannot rule out leaving France.”
However, the complaint has been interpreted as a political statement and officials argue that the chief lifeguard who made the decision was simply abiding by rules that state that all women must wear swimsuits and men must wear small trunks, not shorts, because larger items of clothing are believed to carry higher levels of bacteria.
Carole is reported to have been born to a traditional French family but converted to Islam at the age of 17. She apparently bought her burqini in Dubai. The swimwear, designed by Aheda Zanetti, a Lebanese-Australian woman who remembers battling being a sporty young woman stymied by restrictive clothing, has become a huge hit in Gulf states and is common in Australia.
It allows the face to remain uncovered but its top part is a mixture of hijab and balaclava and the body is like a free-flowing coat cum tunic or tracksuit.
However, its appearance in both Europe and North America has sparked heated debate.
Carole told Le Parisien newspaper that she believed the swimwear would allow her to enjoy the outdoors and the water without baring her body, as Islam asks.
"I can see that that it could be a shock but I am irritated because I have been told that it is a political issue. I did not set out to make a stand. All I wanted was to go swimming with my children in a swimming pool."
Carole also said her outfit could be compared to the high-tech neck to ankle suits used by elite swimmers.
She said the only difference was that theirs went faster than hers.
However Paris pool officials were reported to state that the sporting suits were also not allowed at public baths.
French authorities stressed politics were not involved.
"The lady was almost fully dressed," a spokesman for the pool said.
"The personnel simply applied the rules that are all pools in France ask: wear a bathing suit and take a shower before entering the water."
France sparked acrid debate in 2004 when it introduced legislation banning the hijab headscarf and all other religious dress from state primary and secondary schools.
However, the public has strongly backed the move and it was not strongly opposed by France's five-million strong Muslim population.