Swim England

A nation swimming

Akeela Mohammed says not all Muslim families have same opportunities she did

Akeela Mohammed DL says her family were ‘fortunate’ but that not all Muslim families have the same opportunities, as she explains the barriers to participating in aquatics.

As part of the England Swims campaign, the national governing body for aquatics, Swim England, is sharing stories of individuals, their perceptions of the sector and any barriers they face to participation in water-based activity.

Akeela has four siblings, with two brothers and two older sisters.

Swimwear, as it is for many Muslim women and girls, was the main barrier to participation for Akeela’s family.

Her eldest sister was the first to begin learning through school swimming lessons but had to stop as she wasn’t able to cover her arms and legs.

Sharing the story of her sister’s experience, Akeela said: “When my sister got to about 11, my mum and dad said ‘oh you can’t go swimming anymore’ because once a Muslim girl gets to the age of puberty then she has to cover.

“You have to cover your arms and legs and at that time if they wanted to wear a hijab they could do.

“She said to my dad ‘this isn’t fair’ and because me and my sister were still going because we were younger, that made it worse.

“We had a very big garden, we had like half an acre, so my dad decided to build a swimming pool in the garden for her. So we had a full sized pool in the garden – so not all people have that, I know! We were really fortunate that we could go swimming.

“Ours was a little bit of a different story. We learnt to swim but most families don’t. But even if we had friends round, as we got a bit older, we would wear leggings and t-shirts we wouldn’t wear swimming costumes because there would be boys there.”

She was an amazing swimmer but had to stop

This trend continued throughout generations, with Akeela explaining that she could no longer attend public swimming once she reached a certain age, and this was the same for her daughter.

“The same sort of story happened for my daughter. Obviously we didn’t build a swimming pool in the garden for her but it was the same thing – she couldn’t go swimming,” Akeela added.

“She started swimming when she was four I think. She was an amazing swimmer, really strong and fast, but at the age of 11 or 12 I was like ‘you can’t go anymore because you can’t show your arms and legs, but you can wear a t-shirt and leggings’.

“Of course she was like ‘no way, I’m going to look different’ and she was a teenager, so she just stopped.

“I think that generation, a lot of women especially, cannot swim. And in our community I’ve found that as well. A lot of them are scared of the water because they’ve never been in the water and never gone swimming.”

This provided inspiration for Akeela to start her not-for-profit group called ‘Healthy Her’ and set up swimming sessions in Doncaster for Muslim women.

She explained that had opportunities such as women-only sessions been available to her and her daughter, they would have continued swimming.

My motivation was my daughter

Akeela said: “If they’d done lessons just for teenage girls she would’ve carried on.

“At the time actually I did ask at our local leisure centre if we could wear leggings and t-shirts and go swimming and they said no, whereas I think now it has changed.

“But my motivation was my daughter. I was like ‘right, she needs to go swimming, where can I take her? And there wasn’t anywhere so the only thing I could do was set up sessions.

“It was lovely actually because her and her friends came [to the sessions], her and other Muslim girls.

“When they were little, they all used to go swimming together and it was really nice, they all loved it.

“What was really nice and positive about it was that they were teaching the other ladies, the ladies that couldn’t swim.

“That was a really positive thing that came out of it and you could see them just talking to their aunties and their grandmas and showing them how to swim.”

We have to make it so that everything is accessible

With the sessions being women-only, this removed the barrier of swimwear and having to cover.

“We do have one lady that does come in a burkini so she’s covered from head to toe, and then we have some that come in leggings and t-shirts, but a lot of them actually come in swimming costumes,” she added.

“It’s great and they can actually wear what they want to wear. They’ve got the choice of actually, they don’t need to cover, they don’t need to wear big baggy t-shirts and leggings, they can actually wear swimming costumes and it just be normal.

“It’s making sure that they are given the opportunities the same as everyone else, they’re not different.

“Not being able to do these sorts of things makes us different because we can’t access things that everyone else can and really it’s not fair – why shouldn’t we?

“And because it is religiously we can’t go swimming, because there’s men there and stuff – well that shouldn’t stop us, that shouldn’t be something that actually stops people from doing things.

“I think it’s really important that people do have access, especially women and Muslim women because that’s who I am.

“I think as a mum, it’s not feeling that because my child’s a different religion, that she’s not able to access something because of that.

“That’s not right, so we have to change it, we have to make it so that everything is accessible to the kids as well as the adults.”