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Muslim life guards kick cultural cliché

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Australia's first Muslim life savers are due to qualify this week as part of a drive to represent more accurately the country's multi-cultural mix.

The bronzed, blond life saver has been the embodiment of beach culture for a century and ranks alongside the bushranger and jackaroo as a quintessential Australian icon.

Mecca Laalaa, at Cronulla beach in Sydney, hopes to qualify this week as part of a drive by Australia's life-saving association to update its image

But Surf Life Saving Australia, which represents 115,000 volunteers in more than 300 clubs, now wants to broaden its membership and its image as a bastion of white, working class Anglo-Saxon values.

Women were banned from becoming lifesavers until 1980 and the movement's stern, militaristic tradition, developed by servicemen returning from the world wars, intimidated many newer immigrants. The overhaul coincides with the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the first surf club, at Sydney's Bondi Beach, in 1907.

The campaign to recruit Australians of Middle Eastern heritage has been funded by a A$600,000 (£242,000) grant from the federal government. It is an attempt torebuild community relations after the Cronulla riots of December 2005, when gangs of white and Middle Eastern youths clashed, smashing car windows and screaming racist abuse at each other at one of Sydney's busiest beaches.

The violence erupted after a group of Muslim men allegedly attacked a pair of young life savers. The 24 new recruits started a 10-week training course in November.

They have since been whittled down to 14. Mecca Laalaa is one of the group of Muslims of Lebanese, Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian heritage who hope to become fully qualified lifesavers when they take their exams this week. For the past two months she has taken part in a gruelling training regime which included first aid, radio communications, rescue drills and fitness tests.

Her religious beliefs forbid her from wearing the Baywatch-style bikinis of her white Australian counterparts. So a local designer of Lebanese background came up with a novel idea — the "burqini".

It is a full-length lycra suit which is loose enough to preserve Muslim women's modesty but light enough to enable them to swim and rescue flailing bathers from treacherous rips and undertows. It even comes with a built-in hijab, or head scarf, and will soon be produced in the distinctive red and yellow of the surf life saving movement.

"Normally I'd wear cotton trousers and a top but they get very heavy in the water. This meets our cultural requirements," the 20-year-old student said as she patrolled the white sands of Cronulla.

The group's trainer, Tony Coffey, 49, said the burqini made swimming more difficult compared with being dressed in a bikini or swimsuit.

"It's the biggest hurdle they face. But we can't do anything about it, it's part of the deal. They just need more intensive training."

The new recruits will be expected to volunteer for one weekend a month, rescuing swimmers and dealing with jellyfish stings, surfing injuries and lost children. "We're breaking down social barriers," said Malaak Mourad, 18, a student whose parents emigrated from Lebanon.

"Most of the lifesavers are Anglo-Saxon. We've been getting a lot of attention from the public but I think it's admiration more than anything negative."

The 'true blue' Aussie nature of surf life saving is also being diluted by the increasing number of foreigners joining the movement. In Sydney, beachside suburbs which until a decade ago were populated by working class Australian 'battlers' have been gentrified and colonised by professionals, many of them expatriates.

At the Coogee surf life saving club, around 15 per cent of the 600 active members are foreigners, including Britons, New Zealanders, French, Germans and Americans . Claire Folland, 34, from Edinburgh, was attracted by the fitness regime and social life provided by membership of the club.

"Initially it was very hard because I wasn't very good in the ocean. There's not much swimming in Scotland unless you're drunk or mad," said Ms Folland, who works for Australia Post. But rigorous training and the demands of being on regular beach patrols have honed her swimming skills.

Not even an initial fear of sharks has put her off.

"I figured I'd swim next to one of the fatter members of the club and hopefully they'd get eaten instead of me," she said.


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