When Shereen Sabet made the decision to become a more devout Muslim, she was ready to adhere to the religion's modest dress code: A woman must wear clothing to cover her entire body, except for her face, hands and feet, in public.
Then another thought entered her mind: “But wait a minute, I love to go swimming and snorkeling and I'm a certified scuba diver. Can I still do those things and abide by the dress code?”
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Sabet, who lives in Huntington Beach, Calif., had fallen in love with the ocean after taking a trip out to Catalina Island in 1996 and getting her first taste of scuba diving.
She tried to research her options. Since part of the dress code also discourages body-clinging attire, even surf vests or rash guards were too skin-tight.
“That Catwoman look may be OK for the bedroom, but not for the public,” said Sabet, laughing.
She even considered dry suits, which divers use, but at $800 to $2,000 a suit, it was too costly.
Hiking pants and swim caps didn't fare well either, so Sabet, who's a microbiology scientist at Cal State Long Beach, decided to start her own line of Halal swimwear, called Splashgear.
The idea was to create swimsuits that would conform to the Muslim dress code, but also be comfortable and fashionable.
The original suit design was based on surf wear and featured a floral Hawaiian print separates: the “Island Shirt” — a looser-fitting version of the rash guard, with more fabric in the chest area and a tapered waist, and swim pants — basically board shorts turned into straight-leg pants.
A swim cap and swim hood, similar to what scuba divers might already wear, completed the suit.
“I understand most people are accustomed to not seeing a lot of clothing on the beach or in the water,” said Sabet. “We don't want to look like freaks or stick out like sore thumbs for being so covered up on the beach but I wanted to help make water activity accessible to Muslim women.”
That was in 2005. Today, Sabet has customers from all over the world, including Canada, Asia and Australia. Sabet has now updated the design of the suit. Gone is the Hawaiian print, replaced by suits in solid colors with an athletic stripe down the side.
The swim shirts, which used to be made of nylon, are now a more durable knit fabric that's chlorine-resistant. The swim bottoms now come with a drawstring waist with a cord lock.
The pieces are sold separately and range from $44 to $47 for the swim shirts, $50 to $60 for the bottoms and $12 to $15 for the hair covers.
With the athletic stripe down the side of the newer suits, it basically looks like a hooded track suit or jogging outfit for the water. At the beach on occasion, Sabet gets asked: “Are you like, a Muslim surfer girl?”
“Usually people will still stare,” said Sabet. “We went on a cruise in February and we wanted to go to the Jacuzzi and I wore the suit. I'm sure people were wondering what the heck I had on. I wish they would ask instead of just staring, but I understand.”
As it turns out, it's not just Muslim women who buy Splashgear suits. Sabet said her customers include women who are sun-sensitive or have skin cancer. There are conservative Christian and Jewish women who have ordered the full coverage suits as well.
“There are plenty of plus-sized women who want more coverage too,” said Sabet. “Not everyone can wear a bikini for different reasons.”With requests coming in from Muslim and Mormon men, too, there are now plans to launch a modest swimwear line for men.
For now, Splashgear suits are only available for purchase online at SplashgearUSA.com but Sabet hopes some local stores will begin stocking her suits soon.