A few weeks ago, with the temperature reaching as high as 37 degree Celsius and the kids cooped up and restless, I decided to take them swimming mid-day. Before this conjures up a stereotypical image of a Muslim woman, who cannot swim, idly sitting poolside while the rest of the family splash in the water, I should point out that I was a trained lifeguard and a competitive swimmer in my early teens.
My parents, avid swimmers themselves, taught me to swim in the Atlantic when I was three, and from then on the water has brought me comfort and peace, not to mention the confidence that comes from knowing an essential life saving skill. In fact, Prophet Muhammad once said, “Teach your children swimming, archery and horse riding” (Narrated by Abdullah Ibn Umar).
On this summer day, I excitedly dove into our cool community pool. I could do without the heavy smell of chlorine, but then I’m spoiled having had the ocean as my playground. I warmed up with a few quick laps before easing my children into the water—they knew the drill, mom savors a few minutes in the pool alone without having to monitor the little ones before they are allowed to jump in.
As I emerged from the water and moved towards my children, who were anxiously waiting to enter the shallow end, I noticed a middle-aged man staring at me with interest. Did he consider me a novelty of some sort? I was dressed differently than most other women: swim pants and long-sleeved surfer shirt with my hijab tucked in, but nothing far out of the ordinary in a diverse city like Toronto. Presumably a father accompanying his kids for a swim, he had been eyeing our party for some time and finally paddled over to me. In heavily-accented English and without hesitation, he loudly exclaimed, “You swim like a big whale!”
My kids, wide-eyed, looked from me to him and back to me, waiting for their mother to react. I have always taught them not to comment on people’s appearances, particularly when it comes to someone’s shape or size. We are all unique, I had explained, and, more importantly, the packaging is superficial while the spirit and character are what’s really the measure of a human being.
But we were not soaking wet in a crowded pool, in close proximity to a strange man gawking at us when I had told them that.
I offered a grimace, ushered the kids away, and pushed off from the side of the pool as quickly as possible. I put the insulting comment out of my mind as best I could and began to enjoy the afternoon. Most of the other mothers remained in the shallow end to keep a watchful eye on their children. I, on the other hand, am quite selfish. I insist on some time for myself. My kids aren’t babies and I don’t feel the need to hover over them, holding them in the water. I practiced my diving, taught my kids the butterfly stroke and went down the slide, head first of course.
As my daughter and I took turns retrieving items from the bottom of the pool, a lifeguard leaned in and casually asked me where I learned to swim so well. I appreciated the compliment since I take pride in my swimming skills. I am particular about the lines of my strokes and was pleased that I had maintained an element of grace and strength while in the water.
The pool was not enormous and a short while later I found myself floating near the father who had approached me and my brood earlier. It was too late to move away so I pretended to be completely engrossed in my children’s antics. He didn’t seem to take a hint from my aloof demeanor. “You’re very wet,” he shouted in my direction. A few other puzzled swimmers looked over curiously at his observation. I’m wet? I am not sure what he thought I expected when I dove into the pool, but I had no interest in inquiring. My patience was wearing thin, but before I could fire back with a caustic response, my eldest grabbed me by the arm and offered a generous “Race ya?” to distract me. Under his breath, my son whispered with Yoda-like wisdom, “Just forget him.”
I did. Until he walked up beside us in the family change room/shower. I was determined not to make eye contact and focused instead on hurriedly harnessing, shampooing and drying off my kids. I made a mental note not to opt for the family change room next time. My sons could fend for themselves.
Dreading another strange comment from this man, I speedily collected our belongings and my brood. As I hustled to clear out of the stalls, he ambled over to us, grinning. Oh God…what is his problem? This time I’m just going to tell him off.
“Hey! Good for you that you can be swimming and be happy…….and be Mom. You move very good in water. I will tell my wife to come. She likes water but is too shy. I will tell her she can be a good whale too!”
I paused and smiled. He was right. I do rather enjoy being a whale.
Shireen Ahmed is a Pakistani-Canadian living in Toronto. Her passions include advocacy work for women, football, coffee and family. You can read her blog, footybedsheets.tumblr.com, and follow her on twitter, @_shireenahmed_