Learning to Swim: for Muslim Women in U.S., It’s Not Easy

Yonat Shimron, Raleigh News & Observer, January 1, 2009

Salman Sheikh was organizing a swim class for his two sons last summer when fellow Muslim parents approached him about starting a class for girls.

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Problem was, the small pool overlooked a larger, Olympic-size pool, and Sheikh wondered whether the center could provide blinds to cover the windows and shield the women from onlookers.

Sure, the center’s leaders said, but it would cost $3,000 for custom-made blinds. Sheikh was ready to drop the idea. But the Muslim community in Raleigh and Cary wouldn’t let him.

Within a month, Sheikh, a native of Pakistan who works as a project manager for the state Department of Health and Human Services, raised the money and signed up 35 women for the first class.

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This type of accommodation to the religious requirements of their faith is something Muslims are seeing more. All-Muslim Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops have cropped up across the country. Muslims are entering politics, studying Islam at major American universities, even finding halal, or ritually slaughtered foods, at local stores.

“I see this as sign of Muslims learning to operate within American civic institutions,” said Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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In mostly Muslim countries, it is common to have separate pools for men and women. But in the United States that’s virtually unheard of, and as a result many Muslim women grow up not knowing how to swim.

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Many of the women came dressed in full-length Burkinis, swimming costumes that looks much like a scuba-diving suit but are made of water-protected polyester rather than rubber. Designed for Muslim women, they cover the entire body except for the hands, feet and face.

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For the Sheikhs, the success of the class is a lesson in cultural adjustment. “It makes sense for business and service providers to accommodate the needs of the community,” Salman Sheikh said. “All it takes is dialogue to make it happen.”

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