This week on Saltwater Library, I speak with Yusra Metwally; the founder of Swim Sisters.
Swim Sisters is a women’s swimming community that provides resources and opportunities for women to develop their swimming abilities, water safety skills and confidence, across all levels from learning to swim, to stroke correction, to pool time, to swim in the ocean. The resources Swim Sisters provides include swim instruction, but also childcare and community, both of which are key in women getting the time and opportunities to swim. For Muslim women in countries like Australia, this support can be even more important as they navigate dominate beach cultures where women wearing hijab and modesty swimwear are not so common.
Swim Sisters aims to change that, by making sure that barriers like geography, childcare and the stares of curious onlookers are minimised. Swim Sisters is also committed to improving water skills, knowledge and safety, and to working to reduce the risk of drowning, which is so common on Australian beaches. By working with local councils, swimming groups and surf clubs, Swim Sisters is creating communities that extend from inland suburbs to the coast.
The work of community groups like Swim Sisters is really important. While they’re often experienced as places of pleasure, freedom and recreation in nature, beaches are defined by human cultures – what should wear, when we can go, how we should act. And since the first acts of colonial violence, beaches in Australia have long been sites of contestation. In 2004, violent clashes over beach access in Sydney were a symptom of intersecting multicultural politics of access, diversity, white supremacy, and women’s safety in Australian culture and society. These riots exposed an ugliness that led to shame, reflection and discussion across beach communities and suburbs, as well as amongst the surf lifesaving clubs that were caught up in the tensions. (I’ve listed some scholarship on beaches in Australian culture at the end of this post.)
‘By My Side’ by Amani Hawa won the People’s Choice Award in the 2021 Bondi Surf Bathers Lifesaving Club ‘Club Life Photography Competition and Exhibition’
Since 2004, there have been important changes, most of these led by people like Yusra Metwally and the women of Swim Sisters, who work to improve beach and ocean access for diverse populations, in particular, for women. For Swim Sisters, their focus on improving women’s access ensures changes for their families as well. In addition, Swim Sisters raise funds and awareness of issues, such as raising money for people living with multiple sclerosis by running a 24 hour swim event as an MS Mega Challenge, and their campaign through Ramadan 2022 to encourage people to donate their zakat to ‘Ramadan for refugees with Swim Sisters’ which will go to the UNHCR’s Refugee Zakat Fund
I met Yusra at a ‘women in sport’ symposium at Western Sydney University in 2018, where she talked about Swim Sisters and the importance of women in improving beach accessibility for diverse people, and also in improving water safety across communities. In Swim Sisters, women are central, and their experiences shape the directions Swim Sisters develops in. Yusra’s passion for swimming is infectious, and I was so inspired by her that I made my own way back to swimming after countless years away. Thank you for inspiring me to get back to swimming, Yusra! And thank you for talking with me on Saltwater Library.
You can find out more about Swim Sisters via the social media links on the episode page and in this blog post, but for some more about Yusra and swimming:
- Sport in Australia’s outer suburbs means long drives, jumping over fences and closed pools, ABC News, 10 April 2022.
- There are many ways to be an Aussie water baby, and this is mine, SBS, 18 Nov 2020
- ‘A life force’: the swimming group making waves in western Sydney – a photo essay, The Guardian, 11 Oct 2020
- Meet the Arab-Australians becoming surf lifesavers to educate their community, SBS, 19 Dec 2019
Community groups focused on Muslim people’s participation in outdoor sport and environmentalism:
- Muslim Hikers (UK, with links to cycling and running chapters, and the Active Inclusion network)
- Green Muslims: Islam and environmentalism (USA)
- Swim Brothers: “Males only learn to swim & Ocean safety program” (Australia)
Some critical scholarship on beaches in Australian life and culture:
[If you have trouble accessing anything, please get in touch for assistance]