By Hadani Ditmars
19 Aug 2015
In these dog days of summer, this writer's
heat-oppressed mind often turns to the swimming pool.
As a crucible for class and race issues -
from blacks being banned from pools in mid-20th century United States, to
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank being forced to vacate a pool by Israeli
soldiers accompanied religious settlers - the pool has always been a potent
portal for fear of microbes - of "contagion" - of the
It was also used to great effect in the
surreal 1968 film "the Swimmer", based on a short story by John
Cheever, and starring Burt Lancaster as a disaffected suburbanite who swims
home one summer day through a series of hostile neighbours' pools.
But as a woman who swims daily as a kind of
psychic balancing act - and who has swum in pools around the globe - it would
seem that the humble pool has also become a vortex for the heady collision of
feminism, public mores, and Islamophobia.
It's a seasonal battleground for that age
old issue - control of women's bodies.
Global Pool Reflections
While I've always found France's de facto
ban on the "Burkini" to be a rather hypocritical faux feminist
attempt at imposing an aesthetic cultural bias (after all if, you're going to
ban something on the grounds of offending good taste - please ban the
"mankini" - at the very least as a fashion crime), I recently found
myself in a sticky situation at a public pool in central London.
After doing a dutiful kilometre swim one
afternoon, I retreated to the women's change room - a safe space, one would
think, for a woman to be semi-nude.
But as I dried off and put on middle-aged
underwear, I was met by the stares of a young teenage boy and the glares of his
hijabed, fully-clothed Lebanese mother and aunts.
I protested that the boy was far too old to
be in the women's change area - while they screamed that I should be ashamed of
"exposing" my body to a "vulnerable child".
Blond English women tut-tutted and rolled
their eyes in my "defence", while one of the aunts called me a
"slut" in Arabic.
I tried in vain to navigate the uncomfortable
waters. I reflected on the fact that in certain parts of North America, my only
"crime" in this instance would have been exposing my less than
"perfect" gym-buffed self to body-fat ratio obsessives.
This was a far cry from my experience of
swimming in a segregated north Tehran pool, where the women welcomed me in my
relatively modest one piece and wanted to chat about the latest fashions in
Or from many hours spent swimming at a
hotel pool in Ramallah, where the main issue was not about attire, but rather,
how to avoid being jumped on by enthusiastic children learning to dive.
But the incident at the London pool is not
an isolated one. Everywhere, it seems, there is an ongoing uproar about women
swimmers' bodies and the degree to which they are covered or uncovered.
A few weeks ago a young Canadian woman
named Susan Rowbottom was bathing topless at public beach in British Columbia
(BC) when a male Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer told her that she had to
cover up, in spite of the fact that bathing topless for men or women is not
illegal in the province of BC.
An 8 year old girl, in Guelph, Ontario this
summer, was told she had to cover up her bare chest at a public wading pool or
And a young English mother in Northampton,
UK was told by a lifeguard to stop breast-feeding her infant son in a public
pool because it was "unhygienic" and made some of the men "feel
Then there is the case of the three sisters
Alysha, Tameera, and Nadia Mohamed who were stopped by an officer for cycling
topless in Kitchener, Ontario this summer that has since become a "cause
celebre" for the "free the nipple" campaign - one that supports
feminine body equality and empowerment through social action.
The three Mohamed sisters had ostensibly
Muslim names, which, in the wake of the new Canadian C-51 anti-terror
legislation, (which has been used to target activists of all stripes) made me
wonder whether flashing an errant nipple might also be deemed an "act of
After all, the power of the bare breast has
been used to great effect by North African feminists protesting post Arab
Spring patriarchy and censorship.
When a 19-year-old Tunisian woman Amina
Tyler posted a photo of herself smoking a cigarette with, "My body belongs
to me, and is not the source of anyone's honour", written in Arabic script
across her bare chest, she ignited a global "topless jihad" movement
aimed at women's empowerment.
Too Covered Up
But, apparently, it's not only
"uncovered" female body parts that make certain people feel
"uncomfortable" - it's also a crime for women to be "too"
Canadian lawyer Faisal Kutty successfully
represented a Hijab-wearing Muslim woman who was ejected with her two children
- a boy and girl wearing identical long shorts and t-shirts - from her Toronto
apartment pool for wearing "inappropriate" and
"un-Canadian" attire (although the boy's clothing was not at issue).
In the end, the condo corporation issued a
formal apology and agreed to post the Ontario Human Rights Code in the pool
After Muslim-American Nahida Farunia was
asked to remove her hijab at a public swimming pool in Ohio, she complained to
the town's mayor - and now sits on a community relations panel aimed at
bridging cultural gaps between Muslims and other residents.
Damned if you do, damned if you don't
But despite such happy hijab endings,
controversies about women's bodies and swimming go on.
From the middle-aged
"full-figured" American woman who was told by a male guard to leave a
pool for showing too much flesh - even though younger, slimmer women wearing
similar bikinis were allowed to stay - to ongoing brouhahas about
"Islamic" women's only nights at water parks in the UK.
Based on these "damned if you do
damned if you don't scenarios", it would seem the main issue is women,
with bodies, occupying public space. Funny, but I don't recall similar
headlines obsessing about men and what they wear - or don't wear - in swimming
In the midst of this potent pool of
politics, aesthetics, and public mores, I'm reminded of an interview I did many
years ago with Egyptian feminist writer Nawal-al-Sadawi - who managed to invoke
the wrath of both Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak, and the Muslim Brotherhood, and
whose short story about a pious widow who eagerly awaits reunion with her
husband in paradise, only to find him pre-occupied with 72 virgins, remains a
When I asked her about feminism and Islam,
she replied that "the Western equivalent of the veil is plastic surgery
and mask-like make up".
I eagerly await the day when headlines are
less obsessed with women's appearance - and more concerned with issues like
economic empowerment, wage parity, universal day-care, and the eradication of
domestic violence and global sex trafficking - to name a few.
Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's
Journey Through Iraq, and has been reporting from Iraq since 1997.