07/13/2019 05:45 EDT

American Muslim Women Are Fighting For The Freedom To Swim

“People see something that makes them a little bit uncomfortable, and they need to make a big deal about it,” said 21-year-old Ala Yamout.

It was the summer of 2017 when Ruhee Kapadia, a Muslim mother from Long Island, New York, took her 13-year-old daughter to their local pool.School was out, and her daughter was excited to finally enjoy the long-awaited summer break in the water. 

But staff at the Echo Park Pool said Kapadia’s daughter wasn’t allowed to swim, citing her clothing. Her daughter was wearing a bathing suit layered with leggings and a T-shirt, which staff said wasn’t appropriate swimwear. When the 39-year-old mother tried to reason with the pool staff, they told her it was out of their hands and to take up her concerns with local West Hempstead officials.

Photo provided by Ruhee Kapadia

So she did.

Kapadia met with Laura Gillen, a Democrat who was running for Hempstead town supervisor, a suburb of New York City that had been governed by Republicans for more than a century. Though Gillen’s candidacy was considered a long shot, she promised that if she were elected, she would address Kapadia’s concern.

Over the last decade, Muslim women across the globe have been subject to an increasing amount of harassment when swimming while wearing less-than-revealing swim attire. Just last week in Francewhere the burkini is banned in several cities, Muslim women staged a protest defying the prohibitions. Although no such bans exist in the United States, Muslim women across the country say they are criticized or denied admittance to their local pools because of their modest swimwear.

In 2018, Gillen won, and, she told HuffPost, she wanted to promote “tolerance and transparency” in her new role. So this summer, there are new signs posted local pools that read, “To respect religious customs, a burkini can be worn.” 

Photo provided by Ruhee Kapadia
Long Island resident Ruhee Kapadia was thrilled to see this new sign at her local pool. She said it's a win for the Muslim community.

Kapadia and her daughter were pleased to see the policy in writing when they went back to Echo Park Pool over the Fourth of July weekend.

“It was like a dream that day. It was just this moment of this is it,” Kapadia told HuffPost. “I want not only my children, I want every kid here to feel the belongingness. Nobody should feel any different than anybody else.”

Ala Yamout, a 21-year-old Dallas resident, told HuffPost that she applauds towns that explicitly allowed modest swimwear at pools, because the policy prevents a type of harassment she has faced. Last summer, Yamout was at a neighborhood pool with her niece and sister-in-law when another resident at the pool yelled at them.

Yamout said the man, who was swimming in a T-shirt and shorts, told the women their swimming attire violated the rules set by their homeowners association. When the women explained their clothing was indeed swimming attire specifically made for the water, the situation only escalated. The man told the women they “weren’t even Americans” and needed to “go back to their country.”

Photo provided by Ala Yamout
Yamout was at her local pool with relatives when another swimmer verbally harassed them and said they "weren't even American."

Distressed by the situation and perplexed by the alleged rules, Yamout sent the homeowner’s association an email, seen by HuffPost, documenting what occurred at the pool and inquiring about the rules regarding burkinis. The next day, an official told Yamout that the man was wrong and that her attire was indeed allowed at their pool. In fact, there was even a sign at the gate, showing a burkini as acceptable swim attire.

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

Photo provided by Ala Yamout.
A sign posted by the homeowners association at Yamout's neighborhood pool explicitly includes a picture of a burkini as permitted swim attire.

Both women acknowledged having the rules on their side made their situation easier and that accommodations like clearly permitting burkinis should be the norm across the country. If it isn’t, they urged Muslims to take action.

“It’s easy to sit and talk,” Kapadia said. But she encourages people to call their public officials: “We live in this community. We are equal. We share ... the same things as anybody else. So why settle for less?”