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Accommodating Muslim Modesty in Public Pools

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Accommodating Muslim Modesty in Public Pools

Religion

Accommodating Muslim Modesty in Public Pools

Accommodating Muslim Modesty in Public Pools

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Muslim women are bound by their religion to completely cover up their bodies in public. But as Cathy Duchamp of member station KUOW reports, several public pools in Seattle are accommodating Muslim women, by holding special monthly swim days exclusively for them.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Now to this. Modesty is a core value for Muslim women. Islamic tradition says women should keep their bodies fully covered in public, so what do they do about swimming? In Seattle, Muslim women have figured out one way to stay true to their faith and still get wet. Reporter Cathy Duchamp has more on the Muslim Sisters Swimming Group(ph).

CATHY DUCHAMP reporting:

Here at the Meadowbrook Community Pool, Menal Ferias(ph) covers up the windows with two layers of thick brown paper.

(Soundbite of paper rustling)

Ms. MENAL FERIAS (Muslim Sisters Swimming Group): What's the goal of the paper? So the people from the outside cannot see us inside because we're going to be uncovered. So that's the main reason for that. Creative. Now we need to cover...

DUCHAMP: OK.

Ms. FERIAS: ...the door, too.

(Soundbite of paper rustling)

DUCHAMP: Ferias is one of about 12 Muslim mothers who come to this pool once a month to swim with their children. With the windows covered and the men locked out, the women change into what they jokingly call Islamic swimwear: T-shirts and shorts that cover the knees. They slip into the shallow end of the pool with their kids. It's an experience most of us take for granted. Not Menal Ferias.

Ms. FERIAS: I didn't know how to swim before. I've been raised in Saudi Arabia. No woman can go uncovered or--any public places. For me to learn how to swim, like, even drive, it's very--it's like dreaming. I never imagined myself in the water swimming.

DUCHAMP: The idea for the swim came after the September 11th attacks. North Seattle Community Center director Ann Fuller held a potluck for Muslim women to find out what sort of activities would draw them back out into the community. Swimming topped the list. So a couple of Muslim women set out with Fuller to find a pool.

Ms. ANN FULLER (Director, North Seattle Community Center): We went to one pool--I won't name it. It's a private pool. It's been in the neighborhood for many years. And so we went over there. I was walking up the stairs, and I got blocked on the stairs by a man. And he stood in front of me and he said, `Who are your friends? And where are your friends from?'

DUCHAMP: She got the cold shoulder there. But Fuller maintains a swimming group for Muslim women is good for the community.

Ms. FULLER: We're not giving them special treatment. What we're giving them at the pool is equal access, just like everybody else is entitled to.

DUCHAMP: The Seattle Muslim Sisters Swim(ph) is not unique. There are similar groups in other cities, including Washington, DC, and Houston. In Seattle, Fuller found support at the Meadowbrook Community Pool. Her organization pays for private pool time and two female lifeguards. The lifeguards offer foam noodles, kickboards and tips to new swimmers.

FIONA SHERIDAN-MacGUIVER (Lifeguard): So when you want to pull it on your back, the key things to remember are to keep your head back right here and your tummy up right at the surface of the water...

Unidentified Woman #1: Uh-huh.

SHERIDAN-MacGUIVER: ...and that keeps you floating right on the top of the water...

Unidentified Woman #1: Uh-huh.

(Soundbite of child)

SHERIDAN-MacGUIVER: ...and it helps you float. Does anyone want to try that with me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.

DUCHAMP: That's 17-year-old lifeguard Fiona Sheridan-MacGuiver.

SHERIDAN-MacGUIVER: I know I really enjoy swimming, like, always. And I can just imagine what it must be like to do it for the first time.

DUCHAMP: Sheridan-MacGuiver helps mothers with their toddlers in the shallow end. Plunked together in the deep end, as far away as possible from their moms, are the teen-age Muslim girls. They swing over the water with a thick yellow rope.

(Soundbite of splash)

DUCHAMP: Twelve-year-old Sandos Ferias(ph) does a cannonball off the high-dive.

SANDOS FERIAS (Muslim Sisters Swimming Group): When you're down here it doesn't look that high, but, actually, when you're up there it's like 200 feet, so it's, like, really scary.

(Soundbite of splash)

DUCHAMP: Sandos and her mom, Menal Ferias, say they love being here together with other Muslim families. They're slightly annoyed, though, by the media attention the group has gotten. I'm about the fourth reporter to visit this summer. Menal and her daughter are tired of feeling like novelties.

Ms. FERIAS: We're like normal people--no difference between us, just only the religion.

FERIAS: They go to church; we go to mosque. They have Bible; we have Koran. And they have prophets; we have prophets. So...

DUCHAMP: So we're more similar than different.

FERIAS: Yes.

DUCHAMP: It's 8 PM, time for the Muslim Sisters to get out of the pool. They change back into their floor-length dresses. They put on their head scarves, or hijabs, and re-enter the public world, modesty intact.

For NPR News, I'm Cathy Duchamp in Seattle.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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