Each Saturday, staff at the Copley YMCA in City Heights begin clearing out the pool and locker rooms early. They send their male lifeguards home and a female lifeguard and swim instructor clock on for a special after-hours lesson.
About 15 East-African women and girls then file through the back doors for a women-only swim class. The YMCA began offering it this spring after moms and daughters in a group called City Heights Hope told the directors they can’t swim in front of men because they’re Muslim.
“We came here and I was just looking at the water and I was like, ‘Wow, I wish one day we could come and swim here,’” said Miriam Adam, 14.
Adam, whose parents emigrated from Eritrea, said she and the other group members initially asked the YMCA to include women-only services at its new facility, which isn’t scheduled to open until 2014. But the directors said they could start swim classes as quickly as the women could sign up. The class roster was full a month later.
For many of the women and girls, this is the first opportunity they’ve had to learn how to swim. The young girls are outfitted with arm floaties and taught to blow bubbles, while their older sisters and moms grasp Styrofoam barbells and cling to the walls to practice kicking.
“Kids I’ve never seen will walk in and know their way around the pool right away, whereas everybody that comes in will be like, ‘Can we do this? Can we do that? Can I do it already? Can I get in? Can I get in? Can we start the lesson now?’” said YMCA lifeguard Nicole Velasco.
“So it’s a lot of fun to see that they really wanted to learn, too, not just get in and splash around.”
Birefes Ali said she hasn’t been in the water since she was a teenager in Ethiopia. She’s learning all over again with her 3- and 5-year-old daughters.
“The first time it was kind of scary and exciting,” Ali said during her fourth class. “Still, I’m in the shallow [end]. I’m not going to the deep area.”
Ali said the best part is spending time with her daughters.
“Of course, every kid likes water and I wanted them to grow up like normal kids and learn how to swim,” Ali said over shrieking and splashing kids. “I want them to have fun. They’re really having fun. They’re very excited.”
But the classes aren’t just about cooling off and having fun. They’re the first step in making exercise more accessible for Muslim women in City Heights.
“They have diabetes, high blood pressure, and doctors are telling them all the time, ‘Go exercise,’” said Sahra Abdi, director of United Women of East Africa. “But where are they going to do it?”
Modesty required by their faith keep Muslim women from just hopping on the treadmill at their local gym. And alternatives like walking through the park on a warm day can be hard because the women must be covered from head-to-toe. The women also say they worry about safety while they’re walking.
“In City Heights, there are gangs and a lot of activities that are going on near the parks,” Abdi said. “Sometimes when the women are there, people are calling their names and they are kind of pushing them out. So it’s really scary for them to be at the parks.”
There are also cultural barriers that keep them from using the parks. The women can’t risk coming into contact with off-leash dogs. They follow strict hygiene guidelines in their faith, which considers dogs to be unclean, or not halal.
They also didn’t grow up with dogs as pets.
“In Africa, dogs are kind of wild, so you never see a good dog. So when any women of East Africa see dogs, we tend to be scared,” Abdi said. “So those two issues are real—the religion and the cultural.”
Abdi said the women want to work on making the parks safer next. They’d also like to practice yoga and use the treadmills at the new YMCA.
“They are hopeful because we are part of the society. So if we don’t have access to the services that other people have, it’s kind of making us isolated,” Abdi said. “So we’re trying to break any barriers that we have so our daughters, who are as American as anybody else, will be able to swim or do whatever they want to do. So there’s no limitation at all in the future.”
[Disclosure: City Heights Hope receives funding from The California Endowment, which also supports Speak City Heights and calhealthreport.org.]