In Depth

M&S burkini: Symbol of oppression or good business sense?

Launch of full-length swimsuit in company's London store attacked for 'letting sexism sneak in under the radar'

Marks & Spencer's launch of a full-length swimwear range has proved controversial.

The "burkini" "covers the whole body with the exception of the face, hands and feet, without compromising on style", says the high street retailer. 

Previously only available in M&S stores in Dubai and Libya, the £49.50 swimsuit will soon be sold in the company's flagship store in London. 

Burkinis are largely aimed at Muslim women who adhere to Islamic dress code, but they are also worn by some – such as TV chef Nigella Lawson - to protect from sunburn. 

The Daily Mail describes the launch as "ultimate proof Britain is truly multicultural" but says the outfit "proved controversial within days of going on sale".

Some argue it is a form of oppression against women. "It shows Britain is letting sexism sneak in under the radar," says the Daily Telegraph's Allison Pearson.

"[M&S] is marketing the burkini as if it were just another jolly beach outfit, not a restrictive, quasi-religious garment that treats the female form as lascivious and shameful," she adds.

This chimes with arguments made against the veil, which implies that "women are dangerous to men and society and must be covered", Muslim author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has argued.

But others say wearing the veil or a burkini is a personal choice and it is offensive and patronising to believe that all Muslim women lack the ability to make that decision.

Ultimately, M&S says the launch simply makes good business sense. "We have sold this item for a number of years and it is popular with our customers internationally," it said.

The Muslim fashion industry is booming, with women in 2013 spending $266bn (£188) on clothing and shoes that comply with their beliefs. That figure is expected to reach $484bn (£342bn) by 2019, according to Fortune.

These are numbers that cannot be ignored, says Al Jazeera. "The number of fashionistas, entrepreneurs and designers rushing to seize the opportunity this presents is growing by the day."

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