According to Pew Research Center, the Muslim population in the United States is projected to nearly double in size by the year 2050. However, Muslim women in America still find themselves having to defend the right to practice their religious customs in public. 

In the summer of 2017, Ruhee Kapadia, an American-Muslim mother, brought her 13-year-old daughter to swim at a Long Island, New York community pool. Upon their arrival, pool staff refused to allow her daughter to swim in her burkini, even though no such law outlawing the full-coverage outfit is in place in the United States. Burkinis are a form of modest swimwear, covering the hair and body, that allow Muslim women to enjoy time in the pool, while still holding onto their religious beliefs.

 Kapadia tried to reason with the staff, she told the Huffington Post. “I want not only my children, I want every kid here to feel the belongingness. Nobody should feel any different than anybody else.”

They directed her to local town officials instead. Across multiple state lines, Ala Yamout, a 21 year old Dallas resident, also faced discrimination for wearing a burkini at her neighborhood pool in the summer of 2018. 

She was enjoying time with her niece and sister-in-law when a man yelled that their swimwear violated the homeowners association policies. When they defended their attire, he hurled insults at them saying they “weren’t even Americans” and needed to “go back to their country.”

Yamout took matters into her own hands and sent the homeowner’s association an email, documenting the incident and inquiring about the rules regarding burkinis. She received a response the next day, explaining that her swimwear attire was allowed, as noted on a gate sign outside of the neighborhood pool. 

“People see something that makes them a little bit uncomfortable, and they need to make a big deal about it,” said Yamout, to the Huffington Post.   

Across the pond, France has made headlines in the last decade for controversial bans that have targeted Muslim women’s right to religious freedom. In 2011, the French Senate passed an act of parliament to outlaw face coverings in public spaces, and then in 2016, several cities across France began to prohibit burkinis at the pool. 

Following the summer 2017 incident in New York, Kapadia met with Democratic official, Laura Gillen to discuss the issue of swimwear at local pools and Gillen promised to confront the issue if elected to office. 

Once elected as a supervisor in 2018, she ensured signs that allowed for burkinis, among other inclusive choices, were posted at local pools by the summer of 2019. 

When asked for her reaction to the newly posted signs, Kapadia said. “It was like a dream that day. It was just this moment of this is it.”

Recently, Halima Aden was the first woman to appear in Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue in a full body burkini and a hijab. The issue was published on May 8, 2019 and is seen as a step forward for the religious freedom of Muslim women. 

Aden has been praised for breaking barriers and said to Aljazeera, “It’s sending a message to my community and the world that women of all different backgrounds, looks, upbringings … can stand together and be celebrated.”

About the Author

Nadia Burns 

Nadia Burns is a public relations major at the University of Texas at Austin and a 2019 National Diversity Council I.M.P.A.C.T. Communications Intern. She loves dabbling in graphic design,  exploring local coffee shops and being a dog’s best friend.

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