April 19, 2007


'I felt more welcome in the Bible belt': Manal Omar had used her five-piece 'Islamic-style' swimsuit for years - in Rio, Washington and Kuala Lumpur - and it had never brought her more than a curious glance. Then she went for a dip in Oxford ... (Manal Omar, April 20, 2007, The Guardian)

One Sunday last month I went for my afternoon swim at my local David Lloyd's fitness club wearing the Islamic-style swimsuit I have been wearing for years. The swimsuit has recently been celebrated by media outlets from Newsweek to National Geographic as an innovative way for Muslim women to become more active. As an American-Muslim woman, I have always been determined to be active without compromising my faith. I have been swimming in capital cities across the world from Rio de Janeiro to Washington DC to Kuala Lumpur, and now London. Although I get curious stares, I have never had any awkward moments when I head out for a swim.

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That is, until I came to Oxford.

As I was getting ready to head home from my Sunday swim, I heard a loud voice from a man stating that he needed to speak to the manager about dress code. I picked up on it, but didn't really give it too much thought, until I heard him yelling about "that woman over there" who was wearing the "burkini", the gist of what he was saying seemingly being that it was inappropriate. What the hell is that? The burkini? I could feel a rising indignation at the man's audacity in singling me out in this way. Who had died and declared him the pool police? There were several lifeguards on duty who had seen me swimming there over the previous six months, and none had objected to the swimsuit. It's been nearly a year since I moved to Oxford, and frankly, I had had enough of the anti-Muslim rhetoric in British political life. Now that I was in the middle of it, I refused to stand on the sidelines.

I walked up to the burly, middle-aged man who had been pointing at me a minute before and asked, "Are you guys talking about me?"

He turned towards me, and waved a dismissive hand: "This has nothing to do with you."

"Are you talking about me? Because if you are, this has everything to do with me."

He then confirmed he was indeed talking about me, but not talking to me. He was talking to the manager. [...]

Having spent my entire life in the United States, as a veiled Muslim woman I am no stranger to discrimination. In fact, as a child, I grew up in the hardcore territories of the south in the US, known as the Bible belt. Although I faced comments and questions, my personal lifestyle and space never felt invaded. In fact, the churchgoing community I lived in as a child welcomed me, and after my experience in the UK I want to go back to the local priest and kiss him on the forehead for not only preaching about respect but putting it into practice.

Looking back, what disturbed me the most about the debate was that my very identity was reduced to a cluster of cliches about Muslim women. I was painted in broad strokes as an oppressed, unstable Muslim woman. I was made invisible, an object of ridicule and debate, with no opinion or independent thoughts. The fact that I had dedicated the past 10 years to working on women's issues on a global level, led a delegation of American women into Afghanistan in 2003, and put my life on the line in Iraq struggling for women's constitutional rights were clearly beyond anyone's imagination. The part of my life where I had the opportunity of meeting leading women from Queen Rania of Jordan to Hillary Clinton was erased.

When I chose to wear the headscarf nearly 15 years ago, I promised myself it would never hold me back from my two passions: travel and sport. Neither my mother nor my sister had worn the headscarf, and my family raised us with the gift of freedom of choice. To this day my sister and I enjoy the outdoors, each never giving a second thought to our choice of dress - her bikini or my "burkini". It strongly disturbs me that I was disregarded as an individual, and demeaned to a one-dimensional stereotype. For many of those involved in the debate, the fact that I covered my head and my body seemed to make them forget that I had a brain.

The truth of the matter is that as a Muslim woman living in the US - and I was in Washington DC on September 11 2001 - I never felt so isolated and discriminated against as I have these past few weeks in Oxford. Given that this is supposed to be one of the great seats of western civilisation, that should give British citizens something to chat about.

It's hardly surprising that her religiosity would be more widely accepted in a more religious society.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 19, 2007 10:47 PM

If what's happening in MN and Conyer's bill are spread far and wide, she'd better get used to it.

Posted by: Sandy P at April 19, 2007 11:31 PM

Not if what's happening in MN and Conyer's bill gets passed.

Posted by: Sandy P at April 19, 2007 11:37 PM

I'm sure that many Jews thought a yellow star to be a minor wardrobe change and a small price to pay for freedom of movement. For a real comparsion, she should try swimming in Iran or Saudi Arabia WITHOUT her medieval swimwear. Then try publishing a whiny article in the local press afterwards.

Posted by: tsol at April 20, 2007 7:55 AM

One of the things that discourage Muslim immigration is making them feel uncomfortable. I would say that the secularists in Britain are more passionate about their secularism than the Americans this woman met are passionate about their Christianity.

Posted by: Emma at April 20, 2007 8:18 AM

There's no difference between requiring the star and forbidding the veil. Both are driven by hatred.

Posted by: oj at April 20, 2007 9:05 AM

Oh please spare me the faux indignation. This woman is getting the attention she wants by dressing up bizarrely and claiming she's following the tenets of her faith. When that stops working, she'll dream up another way to call attention to herself.

Posted by: erp at April 20, 2007 10:46 AM

Does anybody think that man's indignation was any less contrived?

Posted by: Chris B at April 20, 2007 11:19 AM

Yeah, what was this guy complaining about? What could possibly be offensive about a full body swimming suit? He sounds like he was upset that he didn't get to see more of her body.

Posted by: BrianOfAtlanta at April 20, 2007 11:57 AM

She didn't get attention in a decent society.

Posted by: oj at April 20, 2007 2:10 PM

Chris, I didn't think the man was indignant so much as annoyed. He was wrong because the gave her center stage. The best way to deal with narcissists is to ignore them.

Posted by: erp at April 20, 2007 4:45 PM

Wow, I didn't see any of the "I want the attention" attitude in that article. What stuck out to me was the line, "the fact that I covered my head and my body seemed to make them forget that I had a brain."

My thought then was, "Yeah, and that's what's wrong with Islam."

Posted by: Bartman at April 20, 2007 6:29 PM