Dear France: I want to be friends, I really do. But you’re making it so very hard, and I’m starting to get the feeling you don’t like me very much.

You know that part in the Harry Potter books where Harry is in Dumbledore’s office and he sees the Pensieve on his desk? And he leans in and suddenly he’s in Dumbledore’s memories?  He’s not visible to others, but is just observing the memory as it unfolds. Well, in sort of a similar fashion, today you’re invited into my own Pensieve to observe a memory of my own. Excited?

The setting is a summer about 12 years ago when a good friend came to visit for a couple of months.  One painfully warm day,  we felt bored of playing Scrabble endlessly and headed to the pool to cool off. That wasn’t a particularly unusual occurrence-though I wasn’t on a swim team or anything, I did enjoy my trips to the local pool. It was the first time we had gone together though, and that day when my friend changed into a a head to toe wetsuit type outfit, she was laughed at, stared at, and rudely approached. But her eyes became a bit shiny, her chin a bit more determined, and she went swimming anyway, acted like it didn’t matter that people were gathering to look at us, and for all intents and purposes, behaved like she was enjoying our aquatic adventure.

I was in complete awe of her bravery, but I found the craziness around us shocking. I didn’t cover my hair then, but had started to want swim gear that was a bit more ‘covering, and the reactions of others to simple differences in swim gear frightened me. After that, I felt sure I didn’t want to return to the pool and experiment with new swim styles.  And indeed I didn’t go back.

Several years later though, this summer I re-entered the pool because I’ve been wanting to learn to kayak and sail, and it made sense to become comfortable again in the water. Before I even dipped a toe though, I debated endlessly with myself, staff in local swim shops, facebook friends, my family, and with really everyone I know, about the all important question: what should I wear while swimming?

What would be swimming appropriate, allow me to be comfortable, and yet ensure I wouldn’t be attacked by other swimmers?

Did I actually think I would be attacked at the UBC pool?  No. But being glared at isn’t pleasant either, and I didn’t want to risk that possibility. I eventually figured it out, so this isn’t a story of aquatic tragedy, but it does highlight a tension many people experience: the tension of wanting to follow a dress code, but also feeling like you need to pick something that won’t raise the attention of others and put you in the way in the way of Scary People.

So when I read about the case of a woman in France who was prevented from entering the pool in her swimsuit (basically made of wetsuit type material but it comes with a headcovering) I was incensed. Why do people care so much about what others wear?

The whole story reminded me of the case a few years ago of Manal Omar, a senior manager at an international NGO at the time, who raised a stir at a pool in Oxford when she tried to go swimming. and generated some seriously hateful online commentary, and a ridiculous number of ‘omigosh why don’t they integrate’ sort of articles. Her response in The Guardian is one of my all time favourite reads.

This part is particularly powerful.

Looking back, what disturbed me the most about the debate was that my very identity was reduced to a cluster of cliches about Muslim women. I was painted in broad strokes as an oppressed, unstable Muslim woman. I was made invisible, an object of ridicule and debate, with no opinion or independent thoughts. The fact that I had dedicated the past 10 years to working on women’s issues on a global level, led a delegation of American women into Afghanistan in 2003, and put my life on the line in Iraq struggling for women’s constitutional rights were clearly beyond anyone’s imagination. The part of my life where I had the opportunity of meeting leading women from Queen Rania of Jordan to Hillary Clinton was erased.

And the France and Oxford cases aren’t isolated incidents, these are just cases that have received media attention.

And while I’d love to chatter on about why this is so very problematic,  Shabana Mir’s article titled “The Deadly Burqini, Or, What Exactly is an “Islamic Swimsuit”?” over at “Religion Dispatches” is seriously brilliant, and you should read that instead. And actually, you should read everything she writes, because her work is amazing. (I’ve just discovered her articles and I’m a bit in love).

My favourite, favourite  favourite part:

Strictly speaking, the liberators of Muslim women ought to jump up and down in joy if these oppressed women make it as far as a co-ed public pool. They’ll get some exercise; they’ll spend some time developing physical strength away from their dark-browed swarthy bad-tempered fathers and husbands. The endorphins and resulting euphoria might result in a sense of physical and emotional freedom. What could be better? Hell, they might make it as far as throwing off their yoke and joining the ranks of the liberated.

Swimming is probably the best form of cardiovascular exercise for almost everyone, including individuals with depression, obesity, arthritis, diabetes, and various age-related ailments. Unlike jogging, it does not cause strain to your joints. Water calms you. Swimming makes you happy. Come, now, don’t those poor backward Muslim women need some health and happiness?

Teehee. That just makes me happy enough to schedule my next pool session soon. And really, perhaps that is the best way to respond to crazy intolerance.  Correct prejudices when you can, challenge assumptions, remind others that you indeed are capable of defining the trajectory of your life and don’t need to be saved from yourself, but also know when to let things go. Recognise when a conversation has become not the clarifying of assumptions, but you wasting precious minutes and hours of a finite life.  And learn when to shield yourself from hatred and toxic spaces.

Above all though, ensure that above all the focus of your life is laughter and creating and dreaming and striving for excellence and reaching out to others, and ultimately living life in a way that would make Thoreau proud, because otherwise the ‘neatly labelled but unrepresentative’ boxes others want to put you in will suffocate you.

Doing all this in the context of daily life though, is a work in progress.

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Shagufta is a UBC Political Science graduate with a passion for interdisciplinary thinking, writing, travel, reading, tea, and interesting conversations. She hopes to combine all of these things in her life work someday. For now though, she studies social policy and planning at the University of Toronto and shares her adventures in and out of the classroom at