Both trailblazers in their respective fields, supermodel Halima Aden and Olympian swimmer Farida Osman discuss the importance of representation and facing down critics.
“When 12-year-old Shukri Yahye-Abdi drowned in a river in the UK in 2019, it broke my heart. It reminded me of two other young Somali-American girls, cousins in my home state of Minnesota, who were found drowned in a pond after a car accident in 2018. Why is it that such a small number of Black and Muslim people learn to swim, compared to white people? I never learned to swim because when I was a child, we did not have access to a pool. Another obstacle was not having swimwear suitable for my faith. My mom, on the other hand, grew up on the ocean in Somalia and learned how to swim from a young age. In 2016, I took to the stage in a burkini at the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. That moment launched my career and in 2019, I became the first model to wear a hijab and burkini in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. This came with its own set of challenges around stereotypes. Another person who has had to face prejudice around her faith and choice of swimwear is Egyptian Olympian swimmer Farida Osman. She is a beacon of hope for young Muslim, Arab, and Black women around the world and our conversation further serves to showcase her determination and dedication to get young girls swimming.”
Halima Aden: How did you get into swimming?
Farida Osman: Since I was a toddler, my mother used to bring me with her to the club to watch my older brother, Ozzy, at swim practice. Egypt has long stretches of beautiful coast and my parents decided to put me in the pool with my brother to at least avoid drowning. When I first got in, it felt like things falling seamlessly into place. I was told later that I wasn’t afraid of the water at all, unlike most other kids. I enjoyed how the water felt and the feeling of safety it gave me, but above all, I loved to compete. At my first competition at 11 years old, I won every race. That’s when I realized it was my calling.
HA: Growing up, did many of your Muslim friends learn to swim?
FO: Yes. Most of my friends are Muslim and we all trained and swam together from the beginning.
HA: Why do you think it is different in other parts of the world?
FO: I think there are many reasons Egypt might be different to other parts of the world, in particular, the Arab world. Egyptian summers are spent on the beach, so learning how to swim stems from being able to enjoy our God-given landscapes. There is also a large number of sporting clubs around the country so access to a pool is more or less available. What I feel is a shame, is that for women, the decisive age is 18. They either go to university and quit swimming, or face societal pressures that say their bodies have developed enough to be covered, or that it’s a suitable age to get married.
HA: What criticism have your faced from the Muslim community in wearing a standard swimsuit?
FO: After I turned 18, some people would criticize me for wearing a swimsuit as a Muslim woman. They would comment on how my swimsuit is revealing, how God will not be happy with me, how my muscles were showing, and how socially inappropriate it is for a Muslim female swimmer to pursue non-traditional professions. I would receive messages from people that I should stop following my dream of swimming competitively, just because part of my legs or shoulders are showing. This was always a point of frustration. But am I wearing a swimsuit with the intention of showing my body publicly? Could Serena Williams win all these Grand Slams without a racket? Could Mohamed Salah win the UEFA Champions League without the ball or his cleats? For me, the swimsuit is my tool.
HA: What pressures do you feel to represent your communities?
FO: Overall, I am proud to be representing African, Arab, and Muslim women around the world because while there is so much talent, it lacks representation due to societal, religious, and cultural reasons. I do my best to shed a glimmer of light on the talent in this region. I always want to be a role model for those who have a dream but feel something is stopping them from going after it.
HA: With the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo postponed, what does that mean for your current training schedule and routine?
FO: I’m choosing to stay positive and I see it now as another year to get better and stronger. Same goal, just adjusting the plan. I have my own small pool at home and I’m also trying out different exercises or sports that could potentially complement my swimming.
HA: With training in the US, what differences have you seen when it comes to American Muslims swimming?
FO: Unfortunately, I did not meet any American Muslim swimmers when I lived in the US, except those, like me, who are on a sport scholarship. I wish it was not the case. My goal is to use my voice and journey as a platform to encourage all Muslim women to try out swimming or any sport of their choosing. If religion is the reason for not doing sport, I believe that God judges you not only on your actions but on the intentions with which you are carrying out those actions.
HA: Are there any Black or Muslim Americans who train at your facility?
FO: Not many.
HA: Why do you think that is?
FO: I’ve met a limited number of Black American swimmers in the US, but I think the issues they face are somewhat different to those we experience here in the region. I do not think that they have the same religious considerations or cultural obstacles that we do. The first reason may be that in the past, they had limited access to pools. Secondly, I think swimming is generally not as popular of a sport within the Black community as others. I truly believe that this is an awareness issue and with the emergence of Black Olympic swimming gold medalists like Simone Manuel, I hope that this paradigm will change.
HA: If you could send a message about why it’s important for people of all races, religions, ethnicities to learn how to swim, what would it be?
FO: Swimming is not only a sport, it’s a key life skill. It has an underappreciated therapeutic quality where you are able to shut out the world in order to be free with your thoughts. Just because it requires attire that may be deemed as somewhat revealing, if you believe in what you are doing, you should feel comfortable in your own eyes and the eyes of God. Those who would like to cover more of their bodies can easily do so using burkinis, for example, but it doesn’t mean you should avoid swimming all together.
HA: Outside of swimming, what has been your proudest accomplishment to date?
FO: My ability to influence, guide, and direct the younger generations of athletes. I am so proud to be given this responsibility to be able to lead the charge and aid Arab, African, and Muslim women to defy the odds, break barriers, and change the stereotypical ideas of what we represent and what we can or cannot do.
HA: I have just begun swim lessons. What advice do you have for me?
FO: Keep going! It might be frustrating at first but keep at it till you get it. Swimming has so many benefits outside of a healthy routine, lifestyle, and keeping you fit. It destresses you and engrains a level of dedication that will be useful in other aspects of your life. Most importantly, make sure you pay attention to, feel, and enjoy the water and the beautiful sounds it makes as you cut through it. Sometimes, just take a deep breath and hold it under water for 10-15 seconds. The silence is mesmerizing.
Originally published in the September 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia