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Controversy over Muslim swimwear creates ripples in Minnesota

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Somali girls and women learn to swim.
With windows covered to ensure privacy, Somali women and girls of all ages dip into the pool for several hours for a weekly swim class at the University of Minnesota.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

The international controversy surrounding the burkini — the long, loose swimwear used by Muslim women, and banned by certain cities in France — has been unsettling for some women and girls in Minnesota.

"My burkini is purple and hot pink," said Nausheena Hussain, 39, at her local YMCA in Coon Rapids. "It's a nice color combination, especially when I've got my purple Speedo goggles on." She laughed.

Citing security concerns after terrorist attacks, French authorities in at least 15 cities have been issuing citations and forcing some women to remove their swimsuits. From the pool in Coon Rapids, Hussain, executive director of a new group called Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment, sees such actions as counterproductive in the fight against extremism.

Nausheena Hussain, executive director of RISE
Nausheena Hussain, executive director of RISE, Rising Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment.
Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

"I feel like they're just kind of playing right into what ISIS wants them to do, which is controlling women," she said. "To me it's such a misogynistic act. And to link the burkini to extremism is, to me ... I don't understand that connection." 

The 39-year-old mother of two teenagers said she didn't learn to swim until four years ago. A Muslim instructor gave her private lessons in a pool, until she gradually became a strong swimmer who enjoys the ocean.

"Just the way the waves hit you," she said, "it feels, really, like you're one with nature. And, coming from a faith perspective, it's a creation of God, and to be able to enjoy his creation just feels like being part of the master plan of his creation." 

Doors that lead to the pool are covered.
Doors that lead to the pool at the University of Minnesota are covered for several hours to ensure privacy for Somali women and girls as they learn to swim.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Zahra Hassan, a community outreach coordinator for the Minneapolis nonprofit Fairview Health Services, works to make swim opportunities available to Muslim girls and women as a matter of health. One day a week, her group offers free swimming lessons at the University of Minnesota to Muslim girls and women, with no men allowed. 

"It makes it easier for the community to learn when they know that they can be in a pool where they don't have to worry about wearing a scarf," she said. "They can wear whatever they want in the pool, as long as the windows are covered, we have a female instructor, a female lifeguard. It's great."

Even with the windows covered, some of the student swimmers opt for greater modesty of a burkini. One 12-year-old Muslim girl asked not to be identified because she fears people might make fun of her swimwear.

"When I swim in privacy, it helps me to not be stressed about who's looking at me because I don't have a really high self-esteem and I'm shy," she said. 

Hafso Warsame, 11, doesn't have a burkini. Instead she swims in a shirt and long pants. 

Older women use float devices to assist in lessons
The older women use float devices to assist them, while the younger girls jump off the side of the pool, and do flips and handstands.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

"When I swim it makes me feel good, makes me feel like a dolphin," she said. "When I'm in the water, it makes me feel happy."  

Nearby, another swimmer, 56-year-old Nadifa Ahmed, floated in her leopard-print burkini. 

"I'm really happy the days that I come to swim," she said in Somali. "I have high blood pressure, and the days that I come swimming, afterwards I'm very relaxed. ... I wish the program was three days instead of the one day."

At another pool, this one at the Midtown Minneapolis YWCA, a diverse group of swimmers included Muslim women in burkinis who have chosen to swim in a co-ed facility. 

Hafso Warsame swims for several hours.
Hafso Warsame swims for several hours in a pool at the University of Minnesota during a special swim time set aside for Somali women and girls on Aug. 19, 2016. With windows covered to ensure privacy, hair covered by scarves or bathing caps, and wearing modest clothing in the pool, the swim class offers a rare opportunity for Somali girls to learn the art of kicking, floating, and swimming in deeper water. The girls say they love to swim and the smiles on all their faces show how much they enjoy being in the water.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Ellen Cleary, the community impact director at Midtown, lamented the "real disparities when it comes to access to swimming, and safety around swimming, for communities of color in Minnesota."

So to be more inclusive of diverse groups and faiths, the YWCA changed its rules in recent years to allow greater variety in dress codes. Before that, burkinis would not have been permitted. 

"Water and swimming is part of our culture," she said. "We don't want there to be barriers to that. We want all kids to grow up knowing skills to be safe around water."

Editor's note: An ealier version of this story contained incorrect references to a YMCA and the group Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment. The current version is correct.