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Friday, April 20, 2007 

Take one hijab or two into the sauna part two.

Remember the woman who offended the sensitivities of other members of the leisure centre in Oxford by going swimming in what the Sun called "full hijab robes"? Well, she's spoken out to the Grauniad and guess what, her story is remarkably different to that provided by the biggest selling paper in the land:

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.


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.

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?

It turns out that rather than wearing a jilbab or a chador, Manal Omar was in fact wearing a specially designed "modest" swimsuit, looking much like this one:

It's also obvious why Caldwell didn't bother providing us with what Omar said to him when he questioned her wearing the outfit in the sauna: he was too busy humiliating her and treating her like a child to listen.

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.

If she'd looked around a bit further, she would have found at least some support and questioning about the Sun article and the motives behind it, but even I fell into the trap of describing her apparent actions as "bizarre", because I didn't question the very basis of the report: that a woman had seemingly bathed in traditional robes when she had in fact been wearing something entirely different.

Similarly, Omar wasn't making a statement by wearing her suit, as Taj Hargey argued, but was forced into making one in order to set the record straight once her behaviour was questioned, purely because she was exercising her right to wear something that some would find strange but which was perfectly acceptable until someone decided to make a point about it.

None of us come well out of this. The journalists involved at all levels, who only heard what they wanted to and wrote the story regardless of its news-worthiness and the agendas behind it, those of us who commented who went along with the woman acting bizarrely and not perfectly rationally, and the others who'll jump at any excuse to bash a community and a religion as a whole because of the actions of one person. At times you easily forget that there is an actual person at the bottom of all this.

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good stuff sister, MashaAllah.

As Salaam Alaikum
Well i was looking for buying one such swimsuit, could you please tell me where i can buy one.
Wa Salaam

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