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.
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.
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.