Page last updated at 03:13 GMT, Friday, 13 August 2010 04:13 UK

Halal holidays in the sun

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Mizan Raja and Nazma Begum talk about their experience of a 'halal holiday'

By Shaimaa Khalil
BBC News, Alanya

If you see a veiled Muslim woman sitting on a beach watching her husband and children splashing in the waves, don't assume it's her religion that keeps her from joining in the fun.

Muslim women can often be seen swimming while veiled - though they may not want to on beaches where most women are wearing bikinis.

The problem also occurs in some resorts in Muslim countries with an international tourist trade.

Expensive hotels in some Arab countries actually ban veiled women from their pools so that Western guests feel at home.

One answer for Muslim families who want to play in the water together is Halal tourism.

The idea took off several years ago, as hotel companies witnessed the success of the Sharia-compliant banking and investment sector and saw their opportunity.

It encompasses the main aspects of Sharia-compliant living such as no alcohol, Halal food, separate mosques for prayer and modest dressing.

And with nearly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, the potential market is huge.

I find it very alarming - cultural racism or religious racism, which is what this to me is, is saying there is no common humanity
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Mizan Raja, his wife Nazma Begum and their four children travelled this summer from the UK to Alanya, on Turkey's southern, Mediterranean coast, for a beach holiday.

They had been to British resorts before - such as Brighton and Southend-on-Sea - but Nazma could only watch while the others played.

"I really thought I was missing out to be honest, like I was held back from doing something that was really fun and enjoyable.

"But here, everybody has been getting involved and having lots of fun," she said.

Women-only facilities

Large screens in the reception area of the family's four-star hotel advertised the hotel's facilities, without using female models.

Between enjoying the beach, the restaurants, the segregated spa facilities and pool areas, guests hear the call to prayer five times a day.

THE BURKINI
Burkini
The term burkini (or burqini) was used by Lebanese Australian Australian designer Aheda Zanetti for a swimming suit she introduced for Muslim women in 2006-7
Today it is also used informally to describe home-made swimming costumes that cover the body except for the face hands and feet

Another feature that many women consider the highlight is an open-air women-only swimming pool on the sixth floor, at the very top of the hotel.

Even the elevator accessing the pool is for women alone.

Before Nazma and I got into the pool we were both checked for cameras and mobile phones.

Nazma's experience of women-only pools in England was quite different, she said.

"I've actually been to a women-only pool session and all of a sudden a man walked in and he was going to be the lifeguard, which contradicted what it was all about," she said.

A remarkable thing about the women-only pool area is how relaxed the women look.

Most of the women in the hotel were covered. They either wore a headscarf (hijab) or full-face veil (niqab).

In the ladies' pool however, none of the women were covered, and some were wearing regular swimming costumes.

"One person, the other day, I didn't recognise her!" Nazma said. "She was wearing the burkini but she looked so different because she (normally) wears the niqab.

"I could see her face and she was smiling. You could tell she felt safe and secure in this environment," Nazma added.

Growing market

On the beach I met Thuraya Al Haj Mustafa, a Palestinian-German who has been coming to Turkey with her family for the past five years.

They were one of the first families to try the Halal beach holidays.

"What I enjoy myself is being able to go to the beach with my whole family, not just my husband, to go to the sea. I can go as well. I can swim with my children," she said.

"I can have fun with them… you know in Arab countries like Palestine it's normal for ladies to sit by the beach but not to swim. Here I can do everything I like," Thuraya said.

With countries like Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia leading the way in Halal tourism, the Middle East has yet to exploit this young, growing market.

Muslim family in the sea
Halal tourism brings people together, argues Thuraya Al Haj Mustafa (right)

Only a handful of Sharia or Halal hotel developments have so far materialised in the region - yet the World Tourism Organisation says Gulf travellers spend $12bn (£7.7bn) annually on leisure travel.

Abdul Sahib Al Shakiry, an Iraqi tourism expert and founder of Islamic Tourism Magazine, said that a good chunk of this money could be channelled into the Halal tourism industry.

"People want to spend money and if you give them what they want, they'll spend money in this direction and there will be business," he said.

But while some welcome the arrival of the Islamic beach holiday, others see it as a form of isolationism.

'Double standards'

"I find it very alarming," says Muslim writer and columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

"Cultural racism or religious racism, which is what this to me is, is saying there is no common humanity. That we have to, even on holiday, be apart from the rest of you.

"You can go on holiday anywhere in the world and you don't have to drink, nobody forces you to drink.

Muslim women wearing the burqini
A sense of freedom: Burkini-wearing is the norm on a Halal beach holiday

"I accept the Halal food argument but there are always other thing you can eat.

"How would we feel if there were Christian-White only holidays advertised?" she said.

"We would be appalled. You can't have double standards."

Thuraya, on the other hand, said that such holidays are not isolating but rather bring people together.

"You see Muslim people from all over the world. You have Muslim people from China, Russia, Belgium, France.

"The other thing is that when I go to any other normal vacation or hotel they wouldn't accept me wearing the burkini," she added.

"They don't make me feel comfortable so why should I go there?

"I'm not searching for isolation but there's no other possibility for me as a Muslim lady," she said.

Whether or not Halal tourism drives people apart, or brings them together, one thing is for sure - Mizan, Nazma and their children had a fantastic time on this beach holiday.

On their last day in Alanya, Nazma told me that the one thing that has given her a sense of freedom she had not had before, is the burkini.

"I'm not held back any more. I've been able to go in the sea and take part and not think twice.

"Everyone I've seen has been wearing burkinis, so I don't feel like the odd one out," she said.

"It's been a really good experience and something that we want to come back and enjoy next year."

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Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I find I can understand and sympathise with the freedom Halal holidays can bring Muslim women but I also think it is sad to have the need for segregation like this. The lady in the article is not meeting other people, only other women and only other Muslims. It allows for no sharing of experience and understanding with people of different cultures and religions which to me is one of the highlights of travelling. I have just left Malaysia having been during the holiday period before Ramadan and sadly, in a mixed area of Muslims and Western travellers, I found no or minimal interaction between the two cultural groups, unlike in the rest of Asia. The Halal holiday can only compound this segregation in a time when the world could only benefit from more interaction and understanding between peoples.
Sue Lyons, Cork, Ireland

Going on holiday often involves choices about the sort of people you wish to holiday with, and the sort of people you would prefer to avoid. I see no reason why these choices should be denied to Muslims, or indeed to anyone else. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is very out of touch if she fails to realise just how many Christian holidays are available. A Google search on the term "Christian holidays" returned over five and a half million results.

Tony, Aylesbury, UK

The columnist hit the nail on the head. Adverts for Christian White holidays would be universally condemned. These people need to come to terms with the 21st Century instead of isolating themselves.
M L Wade, London

I love the Halal holidays, but I just wanted to point out that the 'burqini' wasn't the first Islamic swimsuit. I know that, for example, a chain of sports shops in Kuwait has been selling similar swimsuits for years, at a fraction of the price of the 'burqini'.
Ann Ronayne, Kuwait City

Well, we have fat free, gluten free, organic, sugar free and best-buy on our supermarket shelves, you can go on gay holiday cruises, family holiday cruises, singles holiday cruises... so the question of whether a Halal holiday is divisive is really silly. As long as no one is forced to take one, who cares?
Michael, Glasgow

The question is, would a non-Muslim be allowed to go on one of these holidays? If not, then clearly it is racism and shouldn't be allowed.

CJ, UK

I've been on Christian holidays and can therefore understand why Muslim people might want to holiday with others who share their social views eg a holiday not based on drunkeness and casual sex. Seems like a good idea to me. I do notice, however, that many Muslim males seem to only want to get as far away from Islamic social restrictions as possible when they holiday in Western countries. Maybe it's only Muslim women who hold to traditional values.
Vince Millett, Croydon UK

There ARE Christian holidays advertised in Turkey. Lots of them. There have been Christian tours to Turkey for centuries. There have been Christian tours around the Middle East and Christian-only accomodation at monasteries for over a millennium. As a Muslim, I have no problem with Christians doing their own thing, enjoying themselves. Does Yasmin Alibhai-Brown object to this now? Most Muslims other than a few extremists don't.
Abdulhakeem, Boston, USA/Shohada, Egypt/Jeddah, KSA

I take my three-year-old for a swimming lesson and go swimming as well. Being a Muslim woman I wanted to wear something a bit more covered than a bikini so I searched on the internet and got a modestkini from a shop in London which is like three-quarter-length tights with a knee-length top covering half my arms.I have been wearing it for almost a year now... I never got any odd or out-of-place looks (maybe because I don't cover my head). In fact I usually get very appreciating looks :)and some British ladies also got the details of the shop from me.
saher awan, hatfield,hertfordshire

Why is it OK for the man to be topless on the beach? As far as I understand Muslim men should also wear modest dress so this whole idea is out of kilter and yet another double standard, read the Quran it is clear in there.
Eli Abu-Jaber, wakefield

In response to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's comment in the article, these holidays are Halal, which does not mean Muslim-only, merely Muslim-friendly. There is nothing to stop non-Muslims taking the same tour package. These holidays are an excellent idea.
Anonymous, London

While I appreciate the comments of the Muslim women on this issue, I still see the concept as reinforcing a sense of 'otherness', which is counter-productive. At our local beaches I have seen Orthodox Jewish women splashing about in the sea fully dressed, it looks strange but at least we are all sharing the same beach. I don't see why a Muslim woman could not wear the burkini at the beach, or at the local swimming pool in the UK (on women-only days), unless the real point is to reinforce the concept of the complete separation of the sexes in the public arena, which is not a concept most of us would agree with.
BrianB, Newcastle UK

I don't think anyone classes themselves as Christian-White. Islam is a religion for all races, this is an issue of what is permissible and forbidden, it has nothing to do with race!
Eden Eustice, Wembley

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