Learning to swim: For Muslim women in U.S., it's not easy

Tarannum Khan, 30, of Apex, N.C., left, and Israa Dorgham, 24, of Raleigh, catch up before changing for their swim class, the first time either has taken lessons. Shades are drawn and paper put over glass doors. COREY LOWENSTEIN / N&O
Tarannum Khan, 30, of Apex, N.C., left, and Israa Dorgham, 24, of Raleigh, catch up before changing for their swim class, the first time either has taken lessons. Shades are drawn and paper put over glass doors. COREY LOWENSTEIN / N&O Corey Lowenstein / Raleigh News & Observer

CARY, N.C. — 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.

Sheikh told them he would ask the Curran Aquatic Center in Cary whether it could accommodate a group of Muslims who preferred a women-only pool.

Yes, of course, the leaders of the aquatic center said, and showed him a 15-yard pool that could be rented for $170 an hour.

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.

Last month, a group of women of all ages dipped their toes into the water for the first time.

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.

For many of the women who signed up for the first class, learning to swim had been a long-deferred wish.

"I didn't ever want to be in a situation where I fall in the water and can't help myself," said Tarannum Khan, 30, who signed up for the class in Cary.

Many devout Muslim women adhere to their faith's requirements to guard their modesty, which for them means covering their hair and bodies in the presence of men who aren't their relatives. By doing so, they believe they are deflecting the desires and gazes of the opposite sex and living the kind of life the Prophet Muhammad might have approved.

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.

Saleha Bhatti of Raleigh, who accompanied her 16-year-old daughter, Sanaa, to the swim class, said that was the case in her family. Had she stayed in Pakistan, she might have taken lessons at a women's pool, but in the United States, it wasn't an option.

"We never had the chance to learn," Bhatti said.

Jenny Jaber, a convert to Islam who lives in Raleigh, said learning to swim should not be a luxury. Indeed, she said, learning to swim is encouraged in the oral sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, known as the hadith.

"I've wanted to waterproof this community for a long time," said Jaber, who worked as a water safety instructor until she converted. "We're around water all the time, and it unnerves me to see these women standing on piers."

The first swimming class for Muslim women focused mostly on the fundamentals of water safety: wading, learning to float, learning to breathe.

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.

Huma Sheikh, the wife of Salman, said she considers herself a pioneer among Triangle Muslim women who have learned to swim. She is proud that her husband and her two boys, Hamza, 9, and Mohhid, 7, can swim. And proud that she can, too.

"I've learned all the strokes," she said, "but I'm best at the breast stroke."

The first class ended last month, and the Sheikhs are planning another one in March or April.

"It's created a lot of excitement," said Doracy Harrison, program manager at the Curran Aquatic Center. "It's been really neat."

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."