The experience of swimming: Burkinis and fierce sea creatures

The experience of swimming: Burkinis and fierce sea creatures
Blog: The open water of the sea allows author Hadani Ditmars to reflect upon the depth of the struggle faced by women who reject the policing of their bodies.
4 min read
19 Aug, 2016
Racist thugs and Islamophobes alike have awakened the dark soul of the swimming woman [Getty]

I am a woman swimming alone in the sea.

I am an Arab woman. Or at least half of me is, or all of me, depending on who is watching me or asking me where I'm from.

I am not wearing a burkini, but sometimes in these northern Pacific waters where my Syrian ancestors settled – so far from the warm Mediterranean – I wear a wetsuit.

As I swim today in my modest one piece, the cold saltwater penetrating my skin, I reflect on how the wetsuit resembles a burkini. There are many women who come here to swim alone, wearing the black second skins that make them look like fierce sea creatures.

Why are women in second skin burkinis deemed "oppressed"? Why can't they also be fierce?

I swim through a bed of kelp and reflect on the thin membranes of skin that protect us and contain our bodies that comprise 60 percent water; I reflect on the thin veneers of liberalism masking racism and on the otherisms we inflict on each other.

I'm also thinking of the male gaze.

Why are the bodies of women and how they are covered the subject of such debate amongst men, from Cannes to Raqqa, while male apparel is about as newsworthy as the weather?

And what is it about the act of swimming that conjures so many misogynist demons? From arrogant French men conflating the gospel of laicite with Islamophobia who ban citizens who choose to cover themselves, to Gazan seasides where ladies dare not swim even on the hottest of days?

Why are the bodies of women and how they are covered the subject of such debate amongst men, from Cannes to Raqqa, while male apparel is about as newsworthy as the weather

I count my swimming strokes slowly, deliberately, almost as if my front crawl were a political act. And perhaps it is. As I approach 500, I try to forget something I heard on the news today, about the Syrian survivors of torture in Assad's prisons. The story of a 50-year-old woman, who was hung naked in her cell, there for the jailors to assault as and when they chose.

I hope the cold salt water will block out this horror, as well as the endless IS sex slave narratives ingested all summer, as well as the stories of missing and murdered native women that lurk – as a I swim in unceded Coast Salish territory – beneath the televisual surface of violence against women only happens in other places newscasts.

Why, amid all the horror – televisual or buried – are we still obsessing about what women wear?

Why, in 2016, are our bodies still not our own?

I think again about the male gaze, which is partly why I'm here.

A creepy voyeur who walked in on me when I was alone in the shower room at a local swimming pool has turned me into an open-water swimmer, a fierce sea creature of my own making, interrupted only by waves and the occasional seal. Here, I am safe from the eyes of men who might want to leer or label or condemn. The cold salt-water envelopes me like a veil.

As I swim I remember visiting a pool in Tehran where I  spoke with women about bikinis and the Shah, about wage parity and revolution.

"Why," asked one woman, "are people in the West so obsessed about the fact that before the Revolution women wore mini-skirts and now they wear hijab? We still faced the same issues as women before and after."

I remember stories about my Syrian Christian great-grandmother, Sarah, who insisted on wearing hijab, as was the custom in her village, even in new world North America and in spite of her embarrassed assimilated children's pleas. 

I remember her looking proud and strong in the black and white photos I inherited as well as her stories of escaping the Turks by sea.

And as I near my 1000th stroke, I smile and think of Yusra Mardini, the Syrian refugee who saved a boatload of her people by swimming their sinking ship to safety, before going on to compete in the Olympics.

I visualise a whole sisterhood of fierce sea creatures out here, of women who swim swiftly past Islamophobes and creepy voyeurs alike, splashing as they go the male gaze of those who seek to ban them or abuse them.

Racist mayors, thugs of all nations, be very careful now when you step into the water. There is something stirring there, beneath the surface. 

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq. A former editor at New Internationalist, she has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. Her next book, Ancient Heart, is a political travelogue of Iraqi heritage sites.

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars