Swimming while Muslim: A Delaware newspaper dives in and tries to explain it all

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Explaining the intricacies of Islamic law and custom when intermixed with American mores and practice is not an easy thing, especially when the two clash in a place like a public swimming pool.

Yet, I must say the Delaware News Journal does a pretty good job in two articles (which have gotten lots of national play) on what happens when Muslim school kids hop into a local pool wearing street clothes -- that are Muslim garb.

This is not a totally new issue, as we can see from this newscast of a similar incident that happened back in 2014 in a Denver pool. But this Delaware incident has gotten more play.

In this drama, you have nervous pool personnel who jump the gun on whether or not to order the kids out; a principal who sweeps about in a full black abaya and niqab covering all but her eyes; and critical Muslims from elsewhere in the state who note how badly Muslims are often treated when they simply want to swim. Here is a sample from the first piece

It's the fourth year Tahsiyn A. Ismaa’eel has taken children, participants in her summer Arabic enrichment program, to the Foster Brown public pool in Wilmington. 
But this year marked the first time some of her elementary schoolers were asked to leave the pool, Ismaa’eel said -- supposedly because they were wearing cotton shirts; shorts; and hijabs, or headscarves. 
The pool manager said it's against city policy to wear cotton in public pools, according to Ismaa’eel. If it's a rule, Ismaa’eel said, "it's never been enforced."
To pick on her group is discrimination, she said. 
"There’s nothing posted that says you can’t swim in cotton," said Ismaa’eel, owner and principal of the Darul-Amaanah Academy and director of its summer program. "At the same time, there are other kids with cotton on. … I asked, 'Why are my kids being treated differently?'"

The problem is that kids are jumping into the pool with their street clothes on, which causes a nightmare in terms of keeping the pool clean. 

What’s a bit odd in the photos is that at least one child is shown wearing a hijab but the rest of her is clad in a regular kid’s bathing suit. If she’s going to cover her hair -– and not all young girls are required to do so -– then why isn’t the rest of her body covered? 

What "proper attire" means is unclear. The city's posted rules do not define proper swimming attire except to disallow "cut-off jeans." (Wilmington deputy chief-of-staff John) Rago pointed to language from the state, but Delaware's only regulation regarding swimwear at public pools is that bathing suits are "recommended."
Neither set of rules makes any mention of cotton. 
"Among the safety considerations is the fact that cotton becomes heavy when wet and weighs swimmers down," Rago said in his statement. "Cotton also strains the pool filtration system more than proper swimwear."

Next, the reporter quotes from the executive director of the Delaware Council on Global and Muslim Affairs, who takes his kids to a private pool after having wrestled with the issue himself at public pools. There is also a photo of a child, apparently from another Muslim school, swimming at a private pool with her head covered.

As I looked at the stories, I thought the reporter covered all the bases as best as one could, especially considering that, in a follow-up story, the pool manager gets her say. This is long, but it's essential reading:

A Wilmington pool manager, under fire for asking children in an Arabic summer camp to exit the pool for wearing cotton, disputed on Monday accusations that her actions were discriminatory. 
Glenda Pinkett, a seasonal city employee, acknowledged there is no written policy against wearing cotton in public pools, but she said she was following guidance she said is well-known in the aquatics profession: that cotton clothes cause clogs in pool filters. 
"Nobody was discriminated. As I did with all our patrons, we asked them to not wear cotton," she said. "They have a group of young girls that was dressed in inappropriate attire, covered. You can be covered. That's fine. You just can't wear cotton." …
(Mayor Mike) Purzycki and other city officials met with members of the Muslim community on Monday to discuss the situation and pool rules. He said swimmers can wear cotton in city pools for the rest of this summer, and rules will be clarified at the end of the season.  
Pinkett maintains "there was no discrimination or prejudice." 
"I said why are you apologizing?" said Pinkett, who said she has worked for the city on and off for a decade. "We didn't do anything wrong." …
Foster Brown pool patron Roxy Waller supported Pinkett's perspective on Monday saying that other guests have been asked to change out of cotton outfits and she doesn't believe the Muslim children were targeted. 
"Why not just buy the right garb?" she asked, adding that her own family has been asked to remove their cotton clothing. "It's a simple thing." 

Instead of falling into the trap of labeling one side as the oppressed and the other as oppressors, the reporter does provide information showing that there are two sides to this story.

One helpful addition would have been more information on how very easy it is to find Islamic -- or body-covering --swimming wear these days. It's everywhere.

Lands End, which has quality childrens’ clothing, prices a long-sleeved girl’s swim shirt for $24.99 and this long-sleeved one-piecer for $14.99. WalMart sells this one-piece Muslim women’s swim suit for $31.35. This cute “Islamic girl burkini” in pink sells for $18.67 on Ebay.   More expensive (but way cuter) ones (like the one shown with this post) are on Etsy.

The story points out that many of these families are poor, so they can't afford specialty swim suits. But if you're the one that's creating a burden on the system by wearing non-swimming attire to a public pool, isn't it up to you to clothe children in something that's the right fabric? Unlike decades ago when I was growing up, there's a lot of very modest swim suits out there these days. 

Compared to some places, Americans are actually lax on what's allowed in pools. In Iceland, you have to strip naked in the locker room and wash yourself everywhere -- and there are actually guards there looking to see that you've done so -- before re-donning your suit for the local geothermal pool and hot tubs. 

The issue isn't going away, as this Australian telecast shows regarding a flap about officials at one public pool in western Sydney putting up privacy curtains to accommodate Muslim female swimmers -- while others in the community fume. 

Should people have to accommodate the modesty requirements of a minority? Should that minority expect to have the services of a public pool if they put certain demands on it? Are these demands reasonable? Does any other religious group make similar demands on these pools? 

This Swiss TV broadcast shows what a local imam did last year when faced with a family in his congregation who refused to allow their daughter to take compulsory swimming lessons in elementary school. The imam produced a text from the Quran saying Muhammad encouraged parents to allow their 7th-century children to learn writing, swimming, horseback riding and archery and that 21st-century parents should do likewise.

(Although how one was supposed to learn how to swim in the desert climes where most Muslims lived back then is a mystery.) This imam felt it was his job to help his congregation "to manage to live together in this society." 

"And so there's always a solution?" the reporter asked him.

"When the will is there," the imam said. 

Returning to the Delaware story, I'm hoping the reporter will return to the aggrieved school principal to see if her kids have bought -- or have had donated to them -- Islamic swimwear. And if not, why not? Certainly the school can keep extra suits on hand, much like ballet studios keep extra slippers available and horseback riding stables keep a supply of boots that students can borrow from. 

Sometimes these stories may sound black and white but upon a closer look, they're multiple shades of grey.

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