As I was getting my feet into the water, I realised what a terrible swimmer I was. I hadn’t been swimming for years. My self-consciousness in wearing a burkini – a long swimming garment for modest Muslim women - influenced my decision to steer clear of swimming pools. It all just felt too hard.
When the short-lived burkini ban was introduced in France, I was outraged by the image of armed policemen circulating a woman at a beach in Nice and ordering her to remove part of her clothing. The restrictions on women’s choices flew in the face of so-called values that underpin France and the national motto of liberté, égalité, fraternité.
In the spirit of outrage, I wrote a 2am Facebook status to rant about the ban and declared that I’d protest by starting a group in solidarity called ‘Burkini Babes’ in 2017. The spur of the moment decision reflected my new found appreciation of the liberties afforded to me in Australia to dress as I please at the beach. I also realised I took such liberties for granted by not taking full advantage of Sydney’s pools and beaches.
With a Facebook group and a WhatsApp group, the wild 2am ‘Burkini Babes’ idea became a reality, and the Swim Sisters squad was born.
The idea flourished quickly by the uptake of women keen to be part of an inclusive group for swimmers at all levels. I realised that many of the barriers that stopped me from swimming for many years were shared by other Muslim women. I also came to realise that those barriers weren’t exclusive to hijab-wearing women, and the inclusivity of the group attracted women who were active in swim squads as children but had taken a pause during their teenage years.
For many of the burkini-wearing members, joining Swim Sisters gave them the confidence to get back into the water after a hiatus, typically after they decided to put on the hijab.
A significant proportion of the group are strong swimmers, however due to the debates on the burkini coupled with the general attention on the hijab, they no longer felt comfortable to swim in public spaces and stopped swimming.
What started as a political reaction has become a sisterhood of women from all walks of life, ages, backgrounds, and fitness abilities united by a love for the water.
The group has also inadvertently played a support role for women during their pregnancies and for post-partum women due to the gentleness of swimming as a sport.
Sarah, a dentist by trade, joined the Swim Sisters shortly after giving birth to her first child. She loved getting back into the water after a long absence, giving her a chance to get fit again as well as providing her with valuable ‘me-time’ to switch off from the demands of a new mother’s life.
We have women who were part of squad swimming groups as children and returned to the pool. We have women who learned to swim as adults.
We have Olympic hopefuls who disappointed their parents for not pursuing swimming professionally, and even a former representative of the Egyptian national swimming team.
Bonded by a sisterhood and fitness goals, we make the migration from the western suburbs to the local pools and beaches of the Eastern suburbs most weekends.
Our first goal was to train for an ocean swim event, which required regular training at the pool and at the beach on the weekend. Once we conquered our first 500m ocean swim, the group progressed to 1km ocean swims, and the strong swimmers in the group are looking to train towards 2km events and beyond. We’ve since participated in ocean swims to fundraise for the Rainbow Club to fund swimming lessons for children with disabilities and the MS 24-hour fundraising swim for MS research in 2017 and 2018. We’ve even ventured into triathlons!
The Swim Sisters journey has allowed me to embrace swimming and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.
In addition to the fitness benefits, the calm I feel when swimming is priceless. Swimming helps me live a healthier lifestyle and its low impact nature means it’s the perfect activity to recover from other intense activities.
Ocean swimming and the refreshing salt water and crashing waves allow me to be intertwined with nature and fully experience the outdoors.
Water is a great leveller. As visibly Muslim women, participating in ocean swim events allows people to connect and engage to Muslim women in a way they previously haven’t. In the ocean, we are equals. Our differences dissipate as the focus is simply on battling the same waves.
Yusra Metwally is a policy advisor, community advocate and solicitor. She started Swim Sisters in 2016. You can follow her on Twitter on @destntnUnknown.
This article is part of SBS Life series on how culturally diverse women experience wellbeing and practice self-care through sport.