A cover story that's making a splash among Muslim girls
The Age Victoria
January 18, 2011
FIVE years ago Jennie Patterson was snorkelling in Thailand when she met a Muslim woman wearing a Burqini, a two-piece swimsuit with long sleeves, pants and a hood, which left virtually no skin exposed.
Ms Patterson was fascinated. ''I couldn't believe she was allowed to go snorkelling on a boat full of other people. I thought: 'Wow, this is fantastic.' ''
Late last year Ms Patterson found herself recalling the chance encounter. Now working at the Shepparton English Language Centre, she was concerned her students, many of whom were refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, the Congo and Iraq, could not swim.
Shepparton English Language Centre co-ordinator Laurie Hucke said: ''There had been two Afghani [drowning] tragedies in the Goulburn Valley. We knew the boys were going to the public pool and mucking around but they weren't safe - if they did that in a river they would be in big trouble.''
Organising swimming lessons for the boys at Shepparton's public pool was relatively easy. But trying to persuade the parents of the girls proved harder, in part because the Muslim faith requires women to cover their bodies in public.
Ms Patterson Googled ''Muslim swimwear'' and showed parents photographs of the modest swimsuits. ''We had a meeting that took all afternoon,'' she said. ''We got comments like: 'They don't need to swim because we don't go near water.' We said: 'Sometimes in Australia you don't choose to go near water, water comes near you.' Look at the floods now - you don't get to choose.''
Ms Patterson emailed Splashgear, a US company specialising in full coverage swimwear, and mentioned the difficulty she was facing.
''May God bless you and your organisation for your efforts,'' came the reply from customer service. ''The Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) was quoted as saying that there are three things all parents should teach their children - archery, horseback riding, and swimming. Muslim scholars agree that this applies to both boys and girls. So, if you wish to impress some of your Muslim clientele, you can remind them that swimming is a skill that the Prophet commanded as necessary and should be taught in childhood.''
But it was Fatima Zaoli, 19, a multicultural education aide at the Shepparton English Language Centre, who persuaded the Afghan community of the importance of swimming. Ms Zaoli's brother Mohammad Ali Zaoli, 18, drowned in Lake Nagambie in 2006.
''He didn't know about water safety because he didn't have any lessons in Australia,'' Ms Zaoli said. ''Swimming is not really part of the culture in Afghanistan.''
When Leo Houlihan, a welfare co-ordinator at the language centre, learned that the public pool would have to close for the girls' swimming lessons, he offered the use of his backyard swimming pool.
''It wasn't because I am a bleeding heart do-gooder - I am not that sort of person,'' Mr Houlihan said. ''I wouldn't do it for everybody, but these people have so much potential and appreciate everything - I know there is going to be a spin-off in the community.''
On December 6, 10 girls and several aides and teachers from the centre, including Ms Zaoli, had their first swimming lesson. Many had never been in a pool and few knew what to expect.
''None of them came with a towel and they had make-up running off their faces,'' Ms Patterson laughed. ''They marched puddles through the house - they just had no idea. By the second day they were prepared.''
The Shepparton English Language Centre intends to hold the lessons every term.