Women's swim class a splash hit
GTA immigrants dive into all-female lessons, learning valuable skill in privacy and comfort
June 12, 2009
The women arrive in groups, some fully cloaked in burkas, eyes shining through narrow slits in the black fabric. Others wear colourful headscarves over Western clothes, while a few sport jeans and sweatshirts.
Once the windows are covered and the doors are locked, they emerge from the change rooms garbed in everything from billowing gauze pants and tunics to sleek one-piece bathing suits. Like giddy schoolgirls, they eagerly slip into the water for an hour of recreation, exercise and fun.
"Before I came here, I never had the opportunity to swim in a pool," says Zahra Hafiz, 26, who takes two buses every Thursday evening to swim in the female-only program at Dennis R. Timbrell pool in Toronto's multicultural Flemingdon Park.
"It is my favourite thing. I love it. It makes me so happy," says the devout Muslim. Her religion bars her from swimming with men other than her husband.
Hafiz persuaded her husband to teach her to swim in her native Afghanistan before they moved here last year with their 5-year-old son.
But most of the immigrant women who attend female-only programs at municipal pools across the Greater Toronto Area have no previous swimming experience.
Without these programs, the women – and their daughters – might never get the chance to learn to swim, says pool manager Anne Keiser, who has run the female-only sessions since they began about six years ago.
"It is a gift for me just to teach them," she says. "They are so grateful and appreciate the opportunity so much."
The programs cater to hundreds of girls and women who don't feel comfortable swimming with boys and men or who can't wear form-fitting clothing in public for religious or cultural reasons.
Although the oldest programs began in the late 1980s in Toronto as gender-equity initiatives to encourage more females to use municipal pools, most started in the past 10 years and have evolved to serve the GTA's burgeoning immigrant population.
Drowning is a leading cause of injury-related deaths for Canadian children, and children of immigrants are disproportionately at risk, according to the Lifesaving Society of Ontario.
When more girls and women from immigrant families take the plunge, word gets out that swimming is not only fun and healthy, but a life skill everyone can, and should, learn, says the society's Barbara Byers.
Toronto has the largest program, with 11 pools offering female-only leisure swimming and lessons throughout the year.
Mississauga also offers male-only swimming at its Terry Fox Memorial pool.
"After we started the female-only sessions, the men in these communities requested something similar for them," says Juanita Bueschleb, who spearheaded both programs in Mississauga and who now works for the city of Brampton.
Bueschleb was also responsible for starting Mississauga's special female-only swimming leadership program for girls and women, which trains them to become lifeguards and instructors.
"We have (Muslim) graduates of that program now volunteering to lifeguard for female-only swimming sessions," says Bueschleb, who says the women become powerful role models.
She is hoping to expand the program to Brampton, where two pools offer female-only lessons and leisure swimming.
Back at Flemingdon Park, the women show off their swimming skills and praise their instructors, Grade 12 high school students Robin Hayes and Jill Simmonds.
"This is my sixth class and look at me," says a bright-eyed Mariam Desai as she glides on her back. "I was afraid of the water when I first came, and now I am swimming!"
Desai, 24, who moved here from Pakistan two years ago and wears a full burka in public, says she is thrilled to be living in a country that offers women such opportunities.
"I called my parents in Pakistan to tell them that they must start something like this for women there."
The program boosts the women's confidence in the water – and in the community.
"I feel if I can do this, there is so much more I can do," says Shamim, a 34-year-old Muslim from India who joined the group last month.
"I was always afraid of the water," says Shamim, who did not want her surname published. "I don't want to pass that fear onto my 2 1/2-year-old son. He loves the water and I want him to learn to swim."