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'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 ...
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.
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.
By this time I was irate, and the fact that he was using his dirty shoes as a pointer while he was yelling at me didn't help the situation. "But you have just singled me out in front of everyone, and in a voice loud enough for me to hear. How can this have nothing to do with me?"
At this point he referred to me as a "silly little girl", which I found amusing, considering that I am a 32-year-old, 5ft 10in, professional senior manager for an international NGO. This man was clearly a closed-minded bigot and a sexist to boot, and there wasn't much I could do to change that.
This turned my focus of anger towards the manager. His response should have been quick and succinct: "We have lifeguards who determine what is appropriate. If you have a concern, please do not single out one of our members, but put it in writing and we will send you an explanation." But he did not. Instead, he allowed this man to go on publicly challenging my choice of clothing, while publicly humiliating me.
Now, I realise that my swimsuit stands out a bit. And I know it's quite unusual: the week before last I lost my swimsuit and I did feel a bit awkward answering the receptionist's question - one piece or two pieces? "Well, actually, it's a five-piece," I said. The woman across the desk stared back at me in disbelief. I described it as a long wetsuit with a very short mini-dress on top. (It turned up a few days later.)
I admit, it's different. Some people might think it's overkill. But it's my choice. I choose to wear the hijab in my daily life, and it has never stopped me from being active, and this Muslim swimsuit was the perfect solution. I was so excited when I saw it for sale online.
Previously, there had always been a sort of unspoken agreement between me and my fellow swimmers that my swimsuit didn't really matter - we were all there to swim and relax. I was not forcing my swimsuit on them, and they were not forcing their choice on me. In fact, my choice of swimwear has been quite a success globally - it's one of the bestselling items for PrimoModa.com, where I bought it. It's made of ordinary swimsuit material and the Boston Globe recently praised it, among many other papers, in an article headlined, "High-tech fabrics keep Muslim women in the swim."
Yet that's not how the journalist at the local newspaper in Oxford, the Oxford Mail, decided to approach the issue. Her article was titled "Row over fully dressed woman in sauna". The main interview in the article was with Ian Caldwell, the man who verbally attacked me in the lobby. There was no attempt to find out the full story. A so-called "Muslim community leader" called Taj Hargey called it "political correctness gone crazy".
At no point had the journalist contacted me. She seemed to have decided to take a similar approach to the man in the swimming pool - talking about me, not to me. As did David Lloyd's, which had backed up his story without consulting me. At no point did they bother to inform me, a paying member, that such an article was being written. I contacted the Oxford Mail, offering them my side of the story. I never heard back.
Of course, that would have destroyed the theme of the article. Nobody in Oxford would be interested in new swimming suits with hi-tech material, but a crazy Muslim woman jumping into a pool fully clothed and potentially suffocating in the sauna was much more interesting. Since when have facts been important to journalists covering stories involving Muslims?
Needless to say, I was shocked to find out a week later that my swimming habits had caused not only a "row", but a huge online debate. Perhaps the most daunting part of the experience was the strong reactions from those who read the article. It was the website's "most viewed article" even two weeks after the incident.
The comments ranged from attacks on me (from both Muslims and non-Muslims) to full xenophobic attacks on all immigrants in Europe. At no point did any of the readers question Caldwell's version of events; nor did the majority of readers question his motivation for highlighting the issue. There was a blind acceptance that some random Muslim woman had done something, as one commentator described it, "a bit stupid". British Muslims piped up in apologetic tones, and everyone else openly attacked.
My routine visit to the gym had suddenly sparked a crisis: it was all about immigration, asylum! As one person commented, "This multicultural society is now becoming a multidirectional mess." Another commentator went as far as to write, "All the time people seem to be burying their heads in the sand and allowing our once great country to be taken over by others. I hope you one day will wake up when all our beautiful churches are being demolished and mosques built in their place." A tad drastic for a woman taking a swim, don't you think? (Mind you, it's all relative. I had one email from a woman in Sweden saying she found it disgusting that people in Britain went swimming wearing any clothing at all.)
Nobody saw how ridiculous the article itself was. Nobody except for one man. His nickname on the online board was Mr Town, but I would probably have nicknamed him Mr Angel. He posted a comment explaining, "I saw this woman swimming at DL and it was not dangerous or offensive. She wore a full-length suit, like the Aquablade they wear in the Olympics with a tabard type thing over it with a short hem bit that went into a skirt . . . This man obviously has some other motive."
The fact that only one person responded in such a way was more traumatic than the public humiliation Caldwell had subjected me to on the morning of March 4.
It is at this point that I get a bit perplexed by what exactly the British public wants. On the one hand, they are always complaining about Muslims refusing to integrate and be part of the "mainstream" community. On the other hand, it's become painfully clear that when we do come out into the mainstream, we make them uncomfortable. Granted, my swimsuit may not blend in, but the refusal by people like Caldwell to allow Muslim women to create a middle ground of interaction in the UK forces them into the extremes.
The online debate has created in me a sense of fear, and as a result I have not been back to the gym in the past month, even after assurances from the general manager at David Lloyd's Oxford branch that his management team would do their best to ensure I had safe access. The general manager agreed with me that things had spiralled out of proportion, and after I showed him my swimsuit, not only stated that it met swimsuit standards, but that it was now being offered for purchase at all David Lloyd's clubs throughout the UK. But Caldwell's actions had the desired effect: I stayed at home.
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.
Kadang-kadang kita berdepan dengan keadaan yang sukar seperti kita ditanya kenapa pakai tudung, kenapa tak boleh peluk dan salam bukan mahram, kenapa tak boleh makan babi dan sebagainya. Jika soalan ditanya secara baik, mungkin kita tak berapa terasa.. Kita jawab secara baik setakat yang kita tahu, atau koman-koman kita boleh sekadar senyum dan kata,'we will discuss later' pun ok jugak.
Tapi kalau soalan bersikap menghina, memalukan kita depan orang ramai, ia sesuatu yang sangat sukar. Seperti Islam ajar keganasan dll ... Awak tak boleh pakai tudung kalau nak kerja sini dan lain-lain...Bagi yang berani, mungkin akan bangun menegakkan hak, namun berapa ramai yang berani? Ada yang yang menarik diri dan terus mengasingkan diri dan ada yang berubah menjadi orang baru..'If I cant beat them, I'll join them..' Kalau pakai tudung menimbulkan banyak masalah, kita ikut sajalah cara pakaian mereka... Itulah yang sangat kita takutkan.. Semoga umat Islam mempunyai jati diri berpegang kepada prinsip agama dan berani mempertahankan hak... Insya Allah...Saya harap saya berada dan akan terus berada dalam golongan yang bangun mempertahankan hak.. insya Allah.. amin