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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Muslim women step into whole new aquatic world

By JENNA JOHNSON / Daily Nebraskan April 04, 2005
Faces framed with light-colored scarves peer through the glass panes.
The door is locked, as the YWCA is closed Sundays, but Zainab Al-Baaj comes running to pop it open for the women and young girls waiting outside.
They giggle, saying hello to one another and switching between speaking Arabic and English as quickly as they walk through the lobby.
The lobby is where this group of Muslim women, ranging from toddlers to age 60, transitions from the world outside the YWCA to the world offered to them on the second floor at the swimming pool.
In the lobby, long colored scarves, or hijab, are draped over their heads and their bodies are covered with loose, unfitted clothing. Their Islamic faith and culture instructs them to be modest in their dress, showing as little skin as possible when in public or in the presence of men.
At the pool, away from windows, cameras and men, they can strip off their layers of clothing, put on colorful swimsuits and enjoy the warm pool water free of cost for two hours. They talk about their lives, families and the challenges they face everyday.
Once I enter the YWCA door, its my time, said Al-Baaj, a native of Iraq. Its not my husbands time or my childrens time. Its my time. Thats why we cant wait until its Sunday...we just cant wait.
When Al-Baaj first organized swimming sessions last September with the assistance of the YWCA staff and the funding of a community endowment, she had never gone swimming before.
Then, on her first Sunday, she was so excited to get into the water that she kicked off her shoes, rolled up her pants and ran into the pool, screaming with excitement.
In those early weeks she was too scared to leave the security of the shallow end and the safety of holding the wall. But now, the young mother of three is able to take an elegant dive into the deep end and swim the length of the YWCA pool.
Those first few weeks, I was really afraid of the water, she said. But the instructor was right there beside me.
Now, eight months later, the program still is one of the only of its kind in the country, although Al-Baaj said she has talked with women in Tennessee and Michigan who are interested in starting up their own lessons.
The scarcity of pools friendly to Muslim women is the main reason Ohood Hakim attends the swim sessions.
Hakim, a nutrition and health sciences graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said she hadnt been swimming since she moved from Saudi Arabia, where there are many private swim clubs, seven years ago. Since the UNL Campus Recreation Center doesnt offer accommodations for Muslim women, Hakim said she has to search for places to exercise on her own.
We dont really have a place that understands our religion and culture, she said.
Hakim works out at Curves, a female-only gym in Lincoln, and on Sundays between 1 and 3 p.m. she swims and does water aerobics with 40 to 60 other Muslim women at YWCA.
In May, Hakim will be returning to Saudi Arabia with her husband of seven years and her two sons, as her education will be completed and her visa will be up. She will miss the swimming group, which helped her conquer her fear of water common among Muslim women because of inexperience with swimming and gave her a new sense of confidence.
I understand myself more, she said. I can do things I never thought I could learn to do.
Hakim said she would also miss the diverse group of women she met. Although the women all speak Arabic languages, the group is a hodgepodge of different cultures.Some wear swimsuits while others feel more comfortable in long shorts and a T-shirt.
The women speak seven dialects of Arabic, and many dont know English.
Most attend worship services at one of Lincolns two mosques every Saturday, but dont always agree on matters of faith.
The women come from 12 different countries, including Morocco, Jordan, Palestine, Pakistan and Egypt, but their differences are never an issue while swimming.
Even if they wouldnt normally talk to a person outside of the YWCA, they form a bond while swimming that usually only cousins share, Al-Baaj said.
Were all the same here, she said. When we come here, we are all friends.
Breanna Storbeck, a swim instructor and a UNL sophomore pre-dental major, said she has slowly built up a level of trust with these women, forming more friendships each Sunday.
The looks on their faces ... they are just so happy, Storbeck said.
But the world created on the second floor of the YWCA every Sunday could be coming to an end.
The Community Health Endowment will discontinue its funding of the swim program on May 30 so it can assist an organization that didnt receive funding last year, Al-Baaj said.
Since 90 percent of women in the group are low-income, Al-Baaj said, they cant afford to keep the program going by themselves and are calling on the Lincoln community to help them raise $10,000 by May 30.
In the womens locker room, Al-Baaj informs the women of how they can help raise the money through bake sales, a luncheon or just plain begging. She warns them that if they dont take action, their swimming days will be numbered.
After everyone signed up to bring ethnic food or donate money, showered, dried their hair, dressed and wrapped their heads with scarves, they walk back down the YWCA staircase and into the main lobby.
They smooth their scarves, checking for loose curls and getting ready to step back out into the world outside of the YWCA.
Al-Baaj is one of the last to leave for the day, her small face lined with determination as she walked out the glass-paned front door of the YWCA.
She says it has been a gift from God that the swimming program was even put together, and she has faith it will continue.
Were really hoping, she said. Its been great. We dont want it to end.


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