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 “other”.
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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 bathing costumes.
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 leave.
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.
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 uncomfortable”.
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 terror”.
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” covered up.
In the end, the condo corporation issued a formal apology and agreed to post the Ontario Human Rights Code in the pool reception area.
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 pools.
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 classic.
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.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.