Image courtesy of ajari via flikr.
By Sonia El Boury
At 6:30 pm on a Sunday evening, a group of 20 women, teenagers and children gather at the White Oaks Pool in Oakville for their weekly leisure swim. As Zakia Suleman, a devout weekly swimmer, enters the pool building, she’s greeted with the familiar sign “Private Swim. Do Not Enter Pool Area,” while pop music blares inside the poolroom. No men are in the building, and like most women that evening, Suleman is dressed in a traditional hijab that covers her hair. Once the doors are locked and the windows are covered, she enters the pool and joins a crowd of women wearing everything from one-piece suits, to bikinis, to full body scuba-like swim gear.
“We were dying. Some of us were not able to swim outside because of the hijab and I thought [the swim group] was a great idea,” says Suleman. About 10 years ago, a group of Muslim women came together to form their own swim group.
Islam encourages men and women alike to dress modestly in front of each other. For a woman, the interpretation of modesty stretches anywhere from a simple hijab covering the hair, to a full-body garment exposing only the eyes, meaning wearing a bathing suit to a public swim is not permitted.
For the majority of the women who attend the one-hour Sunday swim, it’s the only opportunity they have for any form of physical activity in a week. According to a Halton and Peel Region survey, 96 per cent of Muslim women who reside in Oakville say they would increase their physical activity if there were more women-only options at pools and gyms, with 89 per cent choosing swimming as their preferred form of recreation.
Founded by Dr. Saadia Khan, the swim began as an outlet for Muslim women to exercise. When Khan moved to Oakville in 1999, she realized how limited Muslim women were when it came to access of recreation.
“There were no female-only gyms back then, and if there were, they were hard to find,” she says. With the support of family and friends, and her affiliation with a non-profit organization, Khan began to rent the White Oaks Pool for one hour on Sunday evenings for the women in her community. With its convenient location the swim has grown in popularity, and up to 30 women from Burlington, Mississauga and Milton attend weekly.
Sunday evenings at the White Oaks pool become a women-only zone. Two large double doors lead to the 25 metre swimming pool. Inside the pool room, there are no windows other than the ones on the door, which are concealed with brown blinds. The pool is sectioned off in three: lane swim, shallow end, and deep end. Every inch is bustling with women, young girls, and even baby boys. Teenage girls line up to take turns jumping off of diving boards as mothers cradle their babies in the shallow end and middle-aged women cluster in groups on the deck and in the pool to socialize, as Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” booms through the pools sound system.
“It’s so nice to just come here and swim in a comfortable environment where I’m not being judged,” says Suleman.
In western society, the idea of a religion placing limitations on what a woman can and cannot wear in a public environment, disadvantaging her from participating in recreational sports and activities unless there are no men around, is difficult to understand.
“The image out there, unfortunately, is that Muslim women who are covered from head-to-toe probably don’t do anything fun, they don’t exercise and they’re not allowed to,” says Khan.
According to Yusuf Ibrahim, a religious lecturer at the ISNA mosque in Mississauga, Islam has always given women rights and privileges even at a time when many societies held women back. Now he argues the reverse has happened and that the portrayal of Muslim women in western society, especially those who cover, restrict them from enjoying equal rights and freedoms as everyone else.
“Islam is not restricting women to go swimming,” says Ibrahim. “Islam teaches you to enjoy all aspects of life but to do so in a way that allows you to stay within the boundaries of your religion.”
Dr. Khan hopes that the swim will help to alleviate some of the misconceptions by sending a message to society saying that Muslim woman exercise, swim, wear bathing suits and do whatever they want to do, just like everyone else, yet in the way that they choose.
But Michelle Knoll, executive director of Oak Park Neighborhood Centre, believes that the swim doesn’t help in dispelling stereotypes because it’s not well known in the community and operates strictly though word-of-mouth. Lesley Franklin, pool manager at White Oaks, agrees with Knoll and further suggests that the swim reinforces some of the stereotypes because it’s a group of women who are Muslim, who work towards that.
“In some ways it’s good that it’s under the radar because you don’t have to deal with racism issues,” adds Knoll.
During the swim, not all conservative values are left behind. On occasion, music would be playing and some women would request for it to be turned off, as they believe it contradicts Islamic values.
In the pool, Suleman is at ease. Familiar to all who attend, she seems to be doing more socializing than swimming as she stops to greet every individual in the pool, even stopping to teach a couple women to swim a front-crawl. Choosing to wear the hijab meant giving up a lot of for Suleman, but she was never going to give up swimming. Being able to continue what she loves while staying true to her faith, Suleman feels more free now than she ever did before. M