About This Week’s Guest

Yusra Metwally

Yusra Metwally is the founder of Swim Sisters, a swimming group that supports women from multicultural backgrounds to develop swimming and water safety skills and the confidence to enjoy being in the water.

This week on Saltwater Library, Yusra Metwally talks about how supporting women’s swimming is key to improving accessibility and safety for more people at the beach.

Discussed in this Episode

  • Swim Sisters
  • Women’s swimming
  • Muslim women and burkinis
  • Challenges to equitable beach access
  • Australian beach cultures
  • Cronulla Riots
  • Pathways to ocean swimming
  • Water safety
  • Surf Life Saving Clubs
  • Swimming communities

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Rebecca Olive: Hello, and welcome to Saltwater Library, a podcast about our relationships to coasts and oceans.

The Saltwater Library team acknowledges the Jaggera and Turrbal people as the traditional owners of the land and waterways where this podcast is produced. We acknowledge their elders and ancestors, their young people, and recognize their sovereignty was never ceded.

I’m Rebecca Olive and I research ocean sports and physical activities like swimming surfing and sailing. I’m interested in how these spots shape our relationships to coast and oceans, in who has access to these sports, and how more people can get involved.

[00:00:53] Rebecca Olive: Yusra Metwally is the founder of Swim Sisters, which is a swimming group that supports women from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds to develop swimming skills and confidence and to enjoy the benefits of being in water.

Started in Western Sydney in Australia, the group now has over 150 members and has chapters in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. As well as swim training and water skills, getting women into the ocean is a key part of Swim Sisters, who are also developing links with Surf Life Saving Australia.

I met Yusra at a ‘women in sport’ event Western Sydney University in 2018 and hearing her passion for swimming was part of what got me back into the pool. So I’m really pleased to be able to talk to her as part of Saltwater Library. Thanks so much for making time to talk with me, Yusra.

[00:01:37] Yusra Metwally: Thank you so much. I’m so glad that we have this connection from that seminar I attended back in 2018, and here we are!

[00:01:44] Rebecca Olive: I know, I feel so lucky. Okay, so I gave an intro of Swim Sisters, but can you tell us a bit more about Swim Sisters. What it is and how it started?

[00:01:53] Yusra Metwally: So Swim Sisters, like you mentioned, we are very much a grassroots and informal group, and I personally found the need to start it when I found there was a bit of a gap in supporting women who are adults, who come from multicultural backgrounds in Western Sydney and don’t have the beaches and general water safety initiatives aren’t very accessible. And there’s just a huge gap and need to create a more of a supportive space to encourage women to swim.

And so I basically went on my own swimming journey, where I realized that swimming is something that I enjoyed my entire life but for various reasons, I found myself, you know not going to swim because of the various challenges around swimming as a Muslim woman in a hijab and, you know, wearing a different swimsuit and standing out at the pool. And so, without actually realizing that I was actually taking a bit of a backseat to not have to deal with these things where I actually realized that some swimming is something I really loved. And ocean swimming, I mean the idea of it, it was something I needed to do. It became a bucket list goal for me and for me to achieve that meant that I needed to go and swim and I needed to improve my swim skills. And in that process, I start to have conversations with other friends and women in the community who were at various swimming levels somewhat quite advanced and all they needed was that space. So we set out to train for an ocean swim event, and at the same time as we were getting a group together, we realized this humongous need in the community for just basic swimming lessons. So we just adapted to work on both ends on the ocean water safety front, as well as swimming lesson beginners to fill those gaps.

[00:03:43] Rebecca Olive: Doing an ocean swim became one of your bucket list items, you said. So can you tell us a bit about that? What was it about an ocean swim that is so important to you?

[00:03:53] Yusra Metwally: Just the idea of being free in the ocean, I mean I’ve always loved the ocean, even though being in an ocean swimmer I wasn’t something I ever did. But I always love the feeling of just being immersed in salt water and just taking in the element of freedom compared to a pool I think. And so once I said about that goal, and I was able to tick it off fairly early on doing a 500 meter ocean swim. Even though I was, I came last and I, you know, I took a lot breaks along the way. But it was it was exhilarating once I went into the ocean. Just that feeling of even though you’re in a group you feel like it’s just you and the water. It’s you and the elements you’re just sort of like hugged by the coolness of the water. You know, you see sea life and coral and it’s just a really grounding experience I think, and it wakes you up, invigorates you.

[00:04:48] Yusra Metwally: What I noticed as well, is once you go into swim in the ocean all the various challenges that come with looking different when you’re out in the sand, all of that really dissipates in the water. When you’re swimming, like swimming is just that leveller, everyone is just trying to get through the waves. There’s just a sense of being we disconnected from everything else and it’s just a very groundful and mindful experience.

[00:05:13] Rebecca Olive: Okay, so that leads to some of the points you were making earlier too about some of the barriers from women, and in your case Muslim women, to swim at the beach or they even go to the beach. So could you tell us about some of those barriers? And Australian context I know is very particular.

[00:05:13] Yusra Metwally: So for a lot of women, obviously, the beach is a place where there’s this idea of you know your typical Aussies there, whether that’s being in a bikini and when you’re coming in in a in a burkini, which is being covered. Essentially, it’s a modesty swimsuit.

[00:05:44] Rebecca Olive: So a burkini covers your hair and your arms to the wrists and then to the ankles? Is that right?

[00:05:50] Yusra Metwally: So, it’s being in a full modesty suit and it can be like, wearing leggings or looser pants, and a tunic over it. And sometimes it’s black, sometimes it’s different colours but it’s just basically, you’re at the beach with a bit more material. Some women have a headscarf attached to that suit. Others will wear like a swimming cap or a little turban.

So I think it’s just the fact that Australia’s very multicultural country and sometimes the multiculturalism doesn’t extend to the beach and if we aren’t used to seeing people who don’t look like the typical Australian, and so there is some element of hesitation and fear by some multicultural communities to go out to the beach, for that reason. And I mean I can relate to definitely feeling that, before really embarked on my swimming journey.

When we started Swim Sisters, a lot of the women found comfort in being in a safe space and one of the reasons for that is that when the group started, one of the impetus for me to start the group was in response to the band of the burkini in France. And that was, you know, that was a really unjust a moment of seeing a woman being surrounded by police officers, lying down on the beach just because she’s wearing more material. From memory she wasn’t even wearing a burkini.

And so I had a lot of conversations with women, the community around when the group started who felt even though that was happening in France, because there was so much discussion happening about what they wore, so it was only natural to feel very hesitant about entering a pool or the beach.

[00:07:24] Rebecca Olive: And this has been a big deal in Australia. It was 2014 I think, what’s now called the Cronulla Riots, where issues about who gets to access the beach really came to prominence in Australian media and culture

[00:07:37] Yusra Metwally: Yeah Cronulla Riots, actually it was 2004 so it was quite a while. It’s been a very long time, but it was a very big moment in Australia, in Sydney, just about the beach in general, and it somewhat created this idea of very territorial approach to the beach. Of the Cronulla seasiders versus the Western Sydney-siders coming in encroaching on to the beach territory. So that’s something that was a really ugly chapter in our history, but it happened. I mean, personally, I mean it impacted us in the sense that my family we just we used to go to Cronulla Beach, and lots of Western Sydney families go to Cronulla Beach. In fact, now that I have a little one I do go around Cronulla a lot more often because there’s a lot of nice baby friendly, family friendly beaches where the waves aren’t too roug. So it’s a real shame that there was so much ugliness that happened, back then. But I did not go to Cronulla for a good 10 years after that. And the first time I went, I felt a bit, I just had visions of the really ugly fights that were happening, where anybody who appeared to be of Middle Eastern appearance was bashed.

And so that’s what we’re dealing with when we talk about the beach. There are so many barriers that people have to deal with. It’s not so clear cut as, ‘Oh, just go to swimming lessons’. Because swimming lessons in themselves, in my experience, they have not been enough. Because I went to swimming lessons as a child, I got my, you know, passed my certificate, and then, when I wanted to swim again I went to swimming lessons and I thought I was okay. But that the key to swimming is not just about the lesson it’s about the practice. So it’s about giving yourself the time in the water. And I think that’s what’s essential to improving water safety. It’s about being embedded into that swimming culture, to build confidence.

[00:09:30] Rebecca Olive: So that was one of the things we’ve talked about in a previous conversation, was your realization of it’s not just about swimming. There’s a lot more to it like fitness and being able to swim a bit further, and then, once you get to the beach, dealing with the waves and the currents and all these other elements. So is that part of Swim Sisters too, when you talk about water skills and confidence, is that part of what’s shaping that for you.

[00:09:53] Yusra Metwally: Yes. So we’re very lucky that when the group started there was already, like, a swim instructor who was keen to get in and support women improve in their swim correction skills. And we started to have conversations with surf clubs and came up with a partnership to encourage our confident Swim Sisters to transition to do surf lifesaving training. And we now have a few girls who are fully fledged surf lifesavers at Garie Beach Surf Club.

So that’s been a really good way to really be conscious of the broader water safety space, especially because of the fact, I mean the grim reality is that every summer the drownings are really concerning and they tend to impact people from Western Sydney, they tend to impact multicultural communities. Because of the fact that there isn’t a there isn’t an established water safety culture there tends to be, unfortunately, very high tragic incidences that impacts multicultural communities. And in fact there was also a study with Royal Life Saving that found that migrants were more impacted over a 10 year period with drownings. That’s what really shifted our focus, that made us realize the need for the group and to continue working on being part of the solution to those big issues.

And I mean this weekend like because of the heat wave there’s been some really tragic incidences of drowning over the last few weeks. One at one of the Western Sydney swimming pool involving a 17 year old just the other day, two men from Western Sydney were caught up in a I believe they were drowned when they were rock fishing. So there’s all these instances that happened all around us. So every summer we’re very conscious of what’s happening in our role to try and just make a small impact to prevent these tragic outcomes.

[00:11:37] Rebecca Olive: And so that really ties in with what you were saying before about who gets to access the beach and develop these skills and a sense of confidence and a sense of belonging, in the space as well.

[00:11:47] Yusra Metwally: Well, I think I mean there’s the sense of access, I think, really came to the forefront this year because of Covid, where because of the restrictions during lockdown periods where there was this you know, we were told you must avoid non-essential travel. And so suddenly really brought to the forefront, that if you don’t live close to the beach you’re not allowed to go there and it was almost a reminder of the geographical barriers to accessing the beach. And I think that in itself just is a prime example of the fact that the beaches are there for everyone, but the reality is that if you’re in Western Sydney you don’t have the same level of access. And that extends to things like being part of excellent water safety initiatives like nippers [surf safety program run by the SLSC] that are made for young children to build this water skills early on. If you’re in Western Sydney there isn’t a culture of that. You know you go to soccer and you go to tae kwon do, but going to nippers on the weekends is not generally something that happens regularly. And look, we’re hoping to try and shift that and make it a bit more accessible through our partnerships with surf clubs and I’ll be signing up my little one as soon as he turns five.

[00:12:53] Rebecca Olive: Yeah I live in Brisbane so I really resonate with your points about Covid. And also I grew up in a beach town, so I think, I never took the benefits of being at the beach for granted, but I certainly took my access for granted. And what I learned moving to Brisbane is how much effort it takes to keep access to the beach and ocean, as part of your life. And you know, then when there’s all these other barriers, the barrier of distance anyway, and when you’ve got a family of getting the family together, of parking, of all those things, having these other barriers that you’re describing on the beach is really difficult.

[00:13:27] Yusra Metwally: Just to add to that the aspect of access, I mean, of course, with the geographical barriers to getting to the beach, this is where the role of pools become important because they give families that accessible option. However, pools themselves they’re not always accessible, because we’ve got, again in Western Sydney, you know, several pools that are closing down. There’s reasons that was decided, like it too expensive. Yet it seems that it very much becomes a political issue. When you look at, for example, around the sports rorts drama that happened just before Covid, you know, there was money that was poured into marginal electorates to upgrade swimming pools. That really comes to show that its decisions are made that are based on politics and in the end it’s your everyday residents in Western Sydney who may not be in the position to be in a marginal electorate, don’t have the privilege of being close to the beach, and again miss out on that access to the pool.

[00:14:18] Rebecca Olive: I want to talk to you a bit about your experience of ocean and pool swimming as different. So I’m wondering, for you, how have you found that swimming in the ocean is really different to swimming in a pool.

[00:14:30] Yusra Metwally: Oh, look, swimming in the ocean always trumps swimming in the pool. And with our group, because we have that focus on ocean swimming we might get people who are new and they’ll say ‘I want to come to the ocean, I don’t want to go to the pool’. And the way I sort of talked about the pool and I talk about the pool and the way I view it is that it’s your stepping stone to go into the ocean. So think of the pool, as if it’s where you prepare for the ocean. You want to do your laps, your time in the pool, so when you go into the ocean you’ve got the stamina and fitness to get through the waves, to be able to go through that long distance you need, if there’s a rip or anything like that as well. For me, it’s about, the pool is just a place to train. It’s about also being realistic, like if I’m not able to get to the beach it’s where I can go somewhere closer to do my training. But also I guess it that fitness aspect, in the sense that I love the ocean it’s a place to relax. Sometimes when I swim in an ocean pool I’m not necessarily thinking of time, I’m just chilling out with the waves, whereas when I’m in a pool, I’ll think more about my time a bit more, especially because I’ve been in the focus on trying to train for surf lifesaving myself and have some clear goals around getting to swim certain times. So it’s 400 meters under nine minutes or 200 meters under five minutes for the surf rescue certificate.

So when I’m in a pool I’m thinking more around how many laps am I doing. If I’m not timing, I’m at least counting. It’s like going to the gym compared to going out for a bushwalk, for example, where you might just enjoy the day. So that’s how I see it.

[00:16:00] Rebecca Olive: And was it a big step, confidence wise, for you to swim in the ocean, as opposed to the pool. And for the other women too?

[00:16:07] Yusra Metwally: I mean for me personally, to be honest swimming in a pool in itself was a big confidence breaker to begin with, because before kind of wanting to really focus on swimming I would only swim either in women’s-only pools or at, like, friends’ pool parties. But I’d never actually had the confidence to go out to a big 50-metre pool and swim. And there was two reasons for that. So the one aspect was the skill gap in the sense that even though I really enjoy being in the water, my breathing wasn’t correct so I couldn’t do freestyle. So I’d get in there I’d feel very exposed like ‘if I stop halfway through the lap then I’m, you know, the other swimmers are going to get annoyed’. So that was one consideration. And then the other consideration was the clothing aspects in the sense of being in burkini. And look, that even went to I had that sense of barrier, even if I was swimming a local swimming pool in Western Sydney.

And the ocean I guess is probably one that I felt less of a barrier to because I’ve always enjoyed going to the beach and the ocean, even if I was not really going for a real swim just you know splashing about. But it was the pool, I think, that I felt more that level of pressure.

[00:17:13] Rebecca Olive: And then so has the collectiveness of swimming with other women being really important in navigating that? Both at the beach and in the pool.

[00:17:21] Yusra Metwally: Absolutely. Definitely. And first of all, when we’re out together we don’t need to be self-conscious about ‘Oh, I’m wearing a hijab’ because we’re just together we block all that out. People have been very receptive, people are very warm, they’re very welcoming of diversity on the whole. So our group, what we do is we do different swim meet times. So Sunday mornings, we will head out towards Clovelly and do some swims there. One of the girls in our group is a committed leader to that. It’s just about being that friendly face that anyone can rock up and swim with us. And look, it’s not all the women who swim in our group wear a hijab. Some don’t. And the feedback on the whole is just about having that safe space of being amongst other women. And of course there’s a safety aspect as well. It’s never recommended to swim out on your own, especially in the ocean. To be with others means that if someone’s not hundred percent confident, then they can have someone else to direct them to come out of the deep end of the water to look into first swimming lessons to improve their skill set. So it’s been really, really good. And especially from a training perspective, with our group when we do the surf lifesaving training having a group camaraderie is so helpful because we train to do both the training swims together and going out to the ocean. So yeah, it’s been really good to have that support.

[00:19:00] Rebecca Olive: How did your relationship with surf lifesaving clubs come about?

[00:19:05] Yusra Metwally: It probably began with the very first ocean swim that we did at Maroubra, back when the group started. The first one was early in 2017 so we reached out to the surf club at Maroubra and just said, look we’re gonna be doing an event for the first time and actually SBS [Australia’s national multicultural broadcasting network] wanted to film us as well. A really wonderful surf lifesaver named Simon, he said look if you guys want to come the day before, I can give you guys some tips around entering the water and that kind of thing. So they’ve been really supportive on that end. And then a friend of mine who I used to work with, was as a surf lifesaver at Bondi surf club and I wanted to get in touch with them to come up with sort of a program that would involve training swimmers for an ocean swim event. And they were really receptive to that. So we ended up for the last two years, up until this because of Covid so there’s always pressure about organising, but the Bondi surf club have been really wonderful in training us for one of their oceans swim events that they do in in February. It’s called the Bondi Bluewater Classic, something like that. So that’s been excellent, where they’ve given us time to have an introductory session to water safety and then actually going in the water and swimming every week to train for an event. And so many of the girls who’ve done that swim enjoyed it so much that when we then had another opportunity to collaborate with Garie surf club, specifically to train our members both at Garie surf club and at our local pool at Auburn Ruth Everuss Aquatic Centre, quite a few of those girls then transitioned into that opportunity. So it just built like option is to converse with the clubs and a really great opportunity to be able to bridge the gap in community engagement because surf clubs don’t have those, because they’re not really based out in Western Sydney so there isn’t that connection. So we’re trying to improve ways that we can engage, to be able to make sure that people are able to make the most of all the amazing water safety opportunities they offer. Coming from the surf lifesaving training, and all the way through to nippers they do really good water safety initiatives, just to be able to have the skills to spot rips to make sure that you stay safe in the water.

[00:21:08] Rebecca Olive: So they’ve been really open to connecting with people and they just needed people to reach back out to them? Which is what you’ve been able to do.

[00:21:16] Yusra Metwally: Yeah, yeah. And a group has recently come on board, called the Swim Brothers, so they’re the men’s chapter, because the need is there for the men. The reason being is that men tend to be, when we’re talking about drowning statistics, men are, unfortunately, over-represented, because they are more risk takers. There’s that need to improve your skills so that they stay safe in the water. The men’s group have recently come on board, and they also continue to work closely with surf lifesaving. It’s great to just keep that momentum going and now it’s wonderful that a few of the girls from Western Sydney, multicultural backgrounds, wearing the red and yellow, and just hopefully inspiring others at the beach that you can aspire to becoming a surf lifesaver. Swimming is for everyone and is not necessarily for a certain type of Australian.

[00:22:02] Rebecca Olive: And so a lot of the Swim Sisters have children and families, as well, so how big an impact you think the women swimming has had on all of your families?

[00:22:11] Yusra Metwally: When I started the group I didn’t have a child, but I was very conscious that if you want to influence water safety in a community, and because we don’t have the resources to do it for everyone, it was just focusing on the women, but when you focus on women, you influence the community because women will inspire their families, their children to be water safe. I think that’s been really something that’s been sort of front and centre of mind. For me, one of the things that always stuck with me, is that if I go to a pool and I see women who are sitting down on the sidelines, while the kids are swimming.

[00:22:58] Yusra Metwally: So I think involving families is super important for a few reasons. First of all, just the level of enjoyment and engaging and being bonded with your child. To be able to go in the water with your child when you’re out on the beach, when you’re on holidays, is invaluable, you know. Both for your kids, do you want to look back at photos and see yourself having fun with them, rather than being on the sidelines? And look, growing up my mom was on the sidelines, and it was a missed opportunity and always a sense of like, kind of felt sad for her. Like she’s sitting minding our things while we’re having a splash, you know. The other point is super important that comes down to safety. So young children should be within arm’s reach and when they’re over five I believe they need to be really close proximity. Not doing those things has unfortunately lead to some really tragic outcomes where children might be swimming in a body of water that appears to be safe.

There’s a beach close to us here in Sydney where a lot of families from Western Sydney go – San Souci and Brighton-le-Sands – and it’s not a patrolled beach but it’s a very much, it’s not a rough beach, like you look at it and you think ‘oh, that’s very safe, the kids can just splash there. But there’s been, over the years, a few really horrific incidences where children were just swept away like that. And the parents didn’t have enough time to get in the water. So I think it’s just really important for families to be involved in, if they are going to keep their children water safe it’s not just about sending them to swimming lessons. It’s also for them to be equipped.

And then you’ve got even more tragic cases that have happened where mothers, seeing their children panicking and being in danger, will go in the water, they can’t swim themselves and they get caught up in the rip and have drowned. So there’s so many horrible situations that have happened and I think, by working with mums and women it’s a way to be able to just change that, even gradually.

And when I had my son, and I wanted to go and swim I found it really difficult to find the time to go because of childminding and limited creche time. So I ended up coming up with a mums-and-bubs program, which we did through having time you know, while women are sending their children swimming lessons, why can’t they have some time for themselves to swim? We were able to get a grant through local council to have a creche operate just half an hour before the kids’ swimming lessons, and then mums going the same call who are beginners who want to do swim correction with the instructor and those who don’t need it go out and do laps. And it was just such an easy way to be able to give something to women who are already coming in the pool and get them to also improve their water safety. Yeah, we’re hoping hoping to do more in that space.

[00:25:25] Rebecca Olive: Yeah, there’s loads of impact. So, as you say, on the safety aspect which I think something that gets forgotten a lot in, when we celebrate going swimming in the ocean, if you’re really confident [at it] you can forget those aspects. But also around the visibility of different kinds of people on the beach as well. You know, especially for kids are going to grow up feeling so welcome on the beach. So I’ve got a last question for you. What’s one thing that people could do to have a more caring relationship to coasts and oceans.

[00:22:54] Yusra Metwally: So I think there’s different levels of care. So first of all there’s the care to the ocean and the beach environment. Just as the beach and the coast care for us in bringing us this immense joy that we should also take care and not leave our rubbish behind and leave the beach in the same state, if not in a better condition from which we came to see it. It’s very disappointing whenever there’s heat waves, going to like a Royal National Park and seeing loads of rubbish. That’s really sad to see considering we’re so lucky to have these beautiful beaches at our doorsteps. And notwithstanding all the challenges I mentioned before about, you know, having longer distance to travel to the beach, I feel like, relatively speaking to other countries, we have a pretty well, even if you have to drive for a little bit you still have all these incredible beaches at our doorstep, so we really should just be looking after them.

And then the other aspect is to look after each other. Be really mindful that the beach and the ocean, as much as it’s wonderful, but it’s dangerous if you aren’t mindful of the risks. Yeah, look after each other. And if that involves having to guide someone to avoid a certain part of water, or to swim between the flags, be mindful of the risk for you and your family when you go and swim.

[00:27:04] Rebecca Olive: Well thank you so much. They’re both great bits of advice and I can’t wait till I’m able to come to Sydney again so I can come swimming with you.

[00:27:13] Yusra Metwally: I know! And I can’t wait to come up to the Gold Coast. Even though, like, I’ve been there before, but I haven’t really immersed myself in the swimming there. And we’ve had a few people asking us to start Swim Sisters there, so hoping to have conversations with some women in the community. And I’m going to put it out there, if anybody’s listening in Queensland who wants to start Swim Sisters there, have a chat to me and we’ll talk about what we can do to support you.

[00:27:36] Yusra Metwally: Right, thanks so much, Yusra.

[00:27:37] Yusra Metwally: Thanks Rebecca.

[00:27:49] Rebecca Olive: I hope you enjoyed this episode of Saltwater Library. It was produced by Hannah Reardon-Smith with music by cyberBanshee and art and design by Amelia Hine. Funding is from the Australian Research Council, and The University of Queensland.

For more information on Saltwater Library and the project it’s part of, you can visit www.movingoceans.com.

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Previous Episodes

  • Indigenous ecological knowledges
    with Stephan Schnierer
  • Saltwater Library: Introduction
    with Rebecca Olive