When Swimming As a Muslim Woman Becomes A Political Act

Photos by Kholood Eid

LONG BRANCH, N.J. –– Manar Hussein stood in the sand and faced the blue Atlantic Ocean, as the water hit her toes over and over in waves. The 27-year-old Muslim woman had not been to the beach in years, despite living in a state with over 40 beaches. Ever since she started wearing a hijab as a teenager, she never went swimming.

Until now.

Dressed in the new burkini she bought earlier this year — black leggings, a bright pink long-sleeved swim tunic, topped with a built-in black hijab — Hussein pushed away her fears and looked ahead, ready for the muscle memory to kick in.

She tried not to pay attention to fellow swimmers nearby. She tried not to worry that someone might harass her, or even worse, physically attack her. It wouldn’t be the first time it happened.

Muslim women like Hussein have long been persecuted and intimidated for wearing a modest bathing suit. They have been kicked out of pools and beaches. They have been told that their bathing wear wasn’t suitable. Pool- and beachgoers have even told them to go back to their country. Some have called the police on them. 

Manar Hussein at a beach in New Jersey, June 26, 2019. This was Hussein's first time wearing a burkini in the water.

Swimming is one of America’s greatest pastimes, but due to their visibility, Muslim women who wear a burkini face a huge risk of harassment.

HuffPost spoke to over 30 Muslim women across the country who described a wide range of experiences swimming in America. Not all of their encounters were negative, but the vast majority of interviews uncovered a pattern: Muslim women are still fighting for their right to swim. Often they are confronted in public, humiliated and abused. They face decades of entrenched prejudice from people who view their modesty as oppressive and unfeminist. 

It is not just happening in America. Three years ago, at least 20 French towns adopted a burkini ban, forbidding Muslim women from swimming in public pools and beaches if they dressed fully covered. The ban has since been overturned, but similar bans continue to happen, despite a rise in burkini sales.

Back in the U.S., anti-Muslim hate crimes accounted for over 18% of religiously motivated hate crimes in 2018. No organization tracks hate crimes faced by Muslim women specifically, but HuffPost has documented the intersections of sexism and Islamophobia on the road, in politics, at schools and beyond. Being visibly Muslim by wearing the burkini — or the hijab — often makes Muslim women a target.

Muslim Women On The Frontline Of Hate 

Hussein, who grew up in Ventor, a coastal city less than five miles from Atlantic City in southern New Jersey, was often at the beach as a child. She regularly visited Egypt with her family, where she swam in the Mediterranean. As a teen, before she started wearing the hijab, she spent hours at her local pool in South Jersey. 

But one day when Hussein was swimming, she noticed a commotion. Several poolgoers were harassing a burkini-wearing Muslim woman. They demanded that the lifeguard kick her out, saying her clothing was unhygienic and unsanitary. 

Manar Hussein at a beach in New Jersey, June 26, 2019.

“No one stood up for her. No one did anything,” recalled Hussein, who said the incident was one of the reasons why she chose not to swim for so many years. Hussein, a research assistant and education doctoral student at Montclair University, worried that if she did, she would be at the center of public humiliation like that Muslim woman she witnessed as a young girl.

Hussein’s fears aren’t unfounded. One burkini-wearing Muslim mother told HuffPost about an incident at a waterpark in Toledo, Ohio. She was there with her children two years ago, when she was approached three times by three different staff members who questioned her about her outfit. One manager even asked to see the tag on her burkini to confirm it was indeed swimsuit material. In New York, a 25-year-old Muslim woman was swimming at her neighborhood pool in Staten Island when a fellow poolgoer began to take photos of her and her sisters and complained out loud about their attire. “This is why I’m with Trump,” the photo-taking poolgoer allegedly told the Muslim women. 

The incidents are not occurring in a bubble. Although there are no set rules that prohibit Muslim women from swimming in burkinis, many women say they are criticized or harassed. 

Manar Hussein at a beach in New Jersey, June 26, 2019.

“Clothing is a really interesting entryway into a larger conversation about Islamophobia and misunderstandings about Islam in general,” said Liz Bucar, a professor of religion at Northwestern University and the author of “Pious Fashion,” a book examining Muslim fashion trends across the globe.

Bucar said one of the reasons why Muslim women who cover up experience more backlash than other communities like conservative Jewish women is because of the “misconception and stereotype that Islam is just more patriarchal than other faith groups” and that “the headscarf is a sign that Muslim men are controlling Muslim women, or that the tradition itself is patriarchal and misogynistic.”

But Muslim women are changing that every day, through entrepreneurship, social media and resisting the pushback in person. 

“Clothing becomes an example of Muslim women’s empowerment, not their oppression,” said Bucar.

Modernizing The Rules For Inclusivity 

Dananai Morgan, a 34-year-old avid swimmer, was doing laps at her local YMCA in Dorchester, Massachusetts, last summer when the lifeguard stopped her. The lifeguard told her it was “unsafe” to swim in her burkini and that she was required to wear “appropriate attire.” 

Morgan explained to the lifeguard and subsequently the fitness center’s manager that her swimsuit was indeed appropriate attire and further explained that the fabric made for her modest swimwear was the same as any other bathing suit. She explained that her choice to wear a burkini did not break pool rules and eventually she was allowed back in the water.

Dananai Morgan at a YMCA in Boston July 2, 2019.

Morgan was grateful the situation didn’t escalate, but she said it highlighted the need for institutions to host cultural sensitivity training and not put the burden and attention on swimmers.

“To be treated like that in a space where they’re trying to have more people of color swimming, to have more women swimming, to increase healthy habits and make sure everyone feels included and have access to that part of the community, this was a negative experience for me, and I needed to name that,” Morgan told HuffPost.

This isn’t the first time Muslim women have had sour experiences at their local YMCAs. Last year, a Charlotte-based YMCA employee called the police on a Muslim mother because she wore a burkini when she took her children to the pool. But the mother, Fatima Najjati, refused to leave.

Dananai Morgan swims at a YMCA in Boston on July 2, 2019.

“I took my time and just stood there walking around. I’m just not going to pack my stuff and leave,” Najjati told HuffPost at the time, who said it was important for her to set an example for her daughter.

The YMCA has since apologized to Najjati, calling the incident a “misunderstanding,” at the time. Almost a year later, a spokesperson for that YMCA told HuffPost that changes have been made since the encounter. 

“The incident forced us to reexamine not only our swimwear policy but also how we equip our staff — from lifeguards to service representatives to aquatics leaders — to better understand and to facilitate an environment where everyone can be and feel respected, supported, valued and welcomed to fully participate,” the spokesperson said.

Dananai Morgan at a YMCA in Boston, July 2, 2019.

The updated policy, reviewed by HuffPost, now explicitly allows “specialized swimsuits designed with modesty in mind, such as a ‘Burqini’ which traditionally includes three separate pieces: pants, a long t-shirt, and a headcover and head coverings/headscarves no longer than shoulder length.” 

Modest Swimwear On The Rise In America

The rise of modest swimwear expands beyond just Muslim women. Men and women from other faith groups including Orthodox Jewish women and Mormon women all subscribe to modest dress, which includes longer garments at the beach. Individuals with skin sensitivity also dress to cover up to avoid sun damage and other ailments.

Historically, Muslim American women have purchased burkinis from Muslim-majority countries such as Turkey and Egypt, but recently they have now turned to American-based companies who offer manageable shipping rates and sizes.

Coolibar, a Minnesota-based clothing company that specializes in sun-safe apparel, has been selling swimwear for over 20 years. The company recently launched Swim Hijab, a line of modest swimwear. Soon after the launch, the company received requests for more colors and patterns. The company is “very pleased with how people are responding to it,” said a spokesperson. 

Bucar said big brands have only recently been paying attention to the modest fashion market and that most retailers assumed “people who are religious don’t consume,” which, in reality, is far from the truth. 

Modanisa, an online Turkish-based modest fashion clothing company that ships worldwide and is among the top sellers for American Muslim women, said burkini sales have increased over 80 percent since last year. Their largest buyers are in Germany, the U.K., France and Jordan.

Halima Aden, an American-Muslim fashion model who made headlines as the first woman to wear a hijab in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, broke yet another fashion glass ceiling when she made her debut on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition as the first Muslim model to wear a hijab and burkini ― made by Modanisa ― in April 2019.  

Modest Muslim fashion isn’t a foreign idea in the United States. Some of the earliest documented businesses of modest fashion started with Nation of Islam women in the ’60s, according to Kayla Wheeler, an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University and the author of an upcoming book documenting black Muslim fashion in the United States.

“A lot of women in the Nation created small businesses around fashion where they would make clothes for their friends and family, but then also sell it to Muslims in the Nation as well as non-Muslims throughout the local Chicago area,” Wheeler said.

The legacy of these women continued to carry with modern black Muslim women designers today who have taken their designs outside the U.S. and to Europe and beyond.

“What’s really interesting, at least since the 2000s, is how this community has begun to grow outside of just Muslims and included other women who are interested in modest dress like Orthodox Jewish women, women who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Pentecostals, or other conservative Christians, who are just interested in dressing in particular ways,” Wheeler said. “You see that definitely with the swimsuit, as well.” 

Setting An Example As Modest Muslim Mom

Fousia Abdullahi, a 35-year-old Texas resident, is a full-time podcast producer who documents the challenges and accomplishments of Muslim moms in America. She’s also a part-time pharmacy technician. Between it all, she is a mother of four children, ages 13, 11, 8 and 4years old.

Fousia Abdullahi swims with her son at her home in Texas.

Before having children, Abdullahi hadn’t been swimming since she herself was a child. Growing up, burkinis were not popular and so Abdullahi would swim in a long-sleeved top and leggings. But the outfits brought uncomfortable stares and remarks, so she stopped swimming.  

But after having children, Abdullahi’s kids begged her to play in the water. The Dallas-based mom didn’t want to prevent her children from the leisure activities she once enjoyed solely because she didn’t have options for swimwear. So she began to shop online. 

“I think anytime that we’re raising kids, we’re constantly pushing ourselves out of our own comfort zone. So whether it’s going to the beach or going to the pool, that’s something that I’m doing for them so that they know that that’s a space that they can take up. It’s a space where they can be comfortable and have fun and enjoy it,” Abdullahi told HuffPost.

Fousia Abdullahi swims with her daughter. 

Although Abdullahi now swims with her children, she can’t help but constantly look over her shoulder. During the 2017 summer when she took her kids to a water park, she noticed a man staring at her and taking pictures of her without her permission. The incident reminded her of why she stopped swimming in the first place.

“I’m a woman, I’m a black woman, and I’m Muslim,” said Abdullahi. “I’ve always been super hyperaware of that prior to [the Trump] administration, but even more so now. Being part of a marginalized community has this level of fear to it and a level of hypervigilance.”

Back in New Jersey, Hussein recalled all the moments she missed out on swimming. There was the time she didn’t swim at her university pool. Or the time she was on a hiking trip with friends and everyone jumped into the lake while she watched from afar.

She decided she wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines anymore. 

“I kept on my hijab as a form of resistance but that’s not always easy. If I am going to truly commit to this resistance, I also have to do it for not just the revolution, but I have to do it for my own joy,” said Hussein. “I deserve that.”

Hussein took her first dive into the encompassing ocean water. She floated for the first time on her back and grinned up at the sky. It was so easy. She missed having sand stuck in her ears and missed the sound of being underwater. “The muffled sound, it’s so peaceful,” she told her friends once she was back on the sand.

“I don’t want to have to worry about my burkini,” she said. “I just want to wear it, be happy with it and just go to the beach.”

Muslim women across the globe have been subject to an increasing amount of harassment when swimming —all for wearing modest swimsuits. If you’ve experienced this, send us an email and share your story with us. 

Read more: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/muslim-women-are-fighting-to-swim-in-america_n_5d5594d1e4b056fafd08aa70

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