Burqini babes go on patrol on Sydney's beaches

Just over a year ago, Cronulla Beach in Sydney was the scene of ugly race riots in which young white men, many of them surfers, attacked anyone who looked vaguely Middle Eastern.

The violence was reportedly sparked by an attack on two surf lifesavers - symbols of white Anglo-Saxon culture - by a group of Lebanese youths.

Many predicted heightened racial tensions at Sydney's beaches. Instead, Cronulla has become the scene of reconciliation, with 17 young men and women training there to become Australia's first Muslim lifeguards. Last weekend they received the bronze medallions that qualify them to patrol beaches and rescue swimmers from the surf.

Among them were a number of women wearing a newly designed head-to-toe swimsuit, dubbed the burqini. The two-piece outfit - featuring leggings, a loose top and a head covering - enables them to carry out their tasks while conforming to the Islamic dress code.

Mecca Laa Laa, 20, one of the newly graduated lifeguards, said it would give Australian Muslim women the freedom to enjoy the beach while fulfilling their religious obligations. "The point is to get women active in the water, to encourage them to participate in sporting activities ... and wearing the burqini allows them to do that," she said.

Ms Laa Laa and other members of the group - of Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian and Libyan backgrounds - have been training the past four months, learning about the undertows and rip currents that claim lives every year.

The lifeguards were trained as part of a programme called On The Same Wave, introduced by Surf Life Saving Australia after the Cronulla riots. The organisation worked with female trainees to design the uniform. But the burqini has been embraced by Muslim women generally. About 9,000 women in Sydney have bought the swimsuits, which are endorsed by the Australian Islamic Council.

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