When people ask me about my favorite sport, I talk about my love for swimming. As a Muslim woman who covers, people often ask me curiously as to what I wear in the pool and how I manage to glide through the water with my baggy clothes on. As a regular swimmer at my college pool, it doesn’t bother me anymore that I’m the only girl wearing a swimsuit that covers me from head to toe. In fact, when I get into the pool and end up swimming faster than the man in the lane right next to mine, I can’t help but do a little victory dance in my head.
But it wasn’t always like this.
It all began when I moved to Dubai for middle school, where swimming was the required sport during gym for the first semester. Every kid at my new school had been taught to swim at an early age — but I had not. Every day we would have gym where we were required to swim a couple of laps. Being a Muslim who wore a headscarf (hijab) in a Muslim country, it was still odd for many students to see me wear a swimsuit that covered me from head to toe. What was worse was that I didn’t even know how to swim. Day after day, my gym teacher would take me to the side, give me a pair of floaters, and tell me to try floating. For the rest of the period, I would be left in the corner of the pool on my own. For the very first time, I began to feel insecure and limited by my hijab and felt miserable at my situation.
Weeks went by the same way — my peers would jump and race on the deep end of the pool while I would continue to paddle on with my floaters. Three months into my new school, I no longer felt like I belonged there. At times I was bitter and angry at the school system and the gym teacher for not giving me due consideration and an opportunity to learn. At times, I blamed myself for not knowing how to swim in the first place. But nevertheless, I was determined to change the condition I was in.
A couple of months later, it was time to sign up for optional after-school activities and I found swimming as one of the many clubs to choose from. Defying the voice deep down that told me not to sign up and end up embarrassing myself once again, I signed up for swimming. Sitting on the shallow end of the pool during my in school gym class wasn’t enough — I was to experience the same humiliation now even after school. With my hands sweating and a tight knot forming in my stomach, I walked into the changing rooms on the first day of extracurricular swimming. As expected, many of my peers were there and I once again fell into a never-ending pit of nervousness.
“Hello everyone! This is after-school swimming. We are training you to be part of the swim team, where each of you will have the opportunity to compete in individual swim meets. Today we will examine your skill set and place you in a category.” said Ms. McCaffrey, our swimming instructor. I was once again nervous — this coach was surely going to be like the other one. She was going to put me in the corner of the pool just like the other coach, I thought.
As everyone gathered into the pool, I stood waiting for instruction. “Hello, honey. Aren’t you going to go pick a team to join?” asked Ms. McCaffrey. “Um. I don’t know how to swim,” I replied as I fiddled with the long sleeve of my swimsuit. “Well then — you’ll have to learn.” she exclaimed. “You can call me Coach McCaff”.
This time, I was given a kick board. “You place your hand like this and just kick! Go on and let me see.” she instructed. This was a first for me. As I got on my belly and began kicking, she got on the edge and stopped me. “Put your head down and blow bubbles, yes yes! Raise your stomach!” she exclaimed as she placed her hands on my lower body for support. I knew my classmates were watching me pitifully making a fool of myself.
But I was not going to give up, not just yet. I paddled with the board, again and again, to reach the other end of the pool forgetting entirely that the world was laughing at me.
My time after school went by quickly. All of a sudden, I looked forward to my classes with Coach McCaffrey. I was different — covered from head to toe and incapable of swimming. But Coach McCaffrey believed in me. In my first semester, I had gotten a four out of seven for my Gym MYP grade at the IB School. I always got full marks on tests and assignments. My effort showed in all my other subjects — why couldn’t my gym teacher see that I was at least trying?
Nevertheless, I pushed further in my after-school swimming classes. Slowly I perfected my freestyle, learned how to do the butterfly and backstroke, and cooled down with the dolphin. Gradually I was becoming a swimmer. At the end of the year, I got a solid six out of seven on my report card in the gym class, defying my own expectation.
I finally joined my peers at the deep end of the pool. But this end of the pool did not signify that I too had become a privileged student — it signified that there were people out there who saw beyond my headscarf and into my dreams and aspirations as a young student. For the next two years in Dubai, I grew up loving swimming. I would swim at school for two hours and would come back home to swim another hour. I even taught my conservative cousins how to swim. My 40-year-old mother joined in the fun and purchased a swimsuit to try the sport for the first time as well.
Back to high school in the U.S., I encountered similar barriers. From swimming, I joined the basketball team in hopes of trying it for the first time. But many were not accustomed to seeing a “hijabi” zooming through the water or bouncing a basketball. But that’s why I continued to push forward as an athlete, where the barriers were even higher.
I’ve learned from swimming that when you want something, you need to continue to push harder and never give up until you learn and come out on the top. Do not settle for the future that others have determined for you – because no matter what your condition is or the perceived restrictions prescribed by others, it’s never too late to learn something new.
At the age of 10, wearing hijab wasn’t a very trendy thing to do, and there were not many role-models around who could give me the confidence I needed to succeed. But with support and help from people who noticed the determination in my head more than what I wore on top of it, a newfound belief began to thrive within me that the covering I wore on my head could never inhibit my willpower.
Five years later, as I now guide my little sister into the pool, I can confidently qualm her concerns, encourage her and scold her gently when asks me if “she looks weird and funny” in her fully-covered swimsuit. Looking at her laugh and try to compete with me, I know I want to be there for every Muslim girl who is too embarrassed to take that first leap forward — whether it’s into a pool, on the stage of an auditorium or onto a football field.