When Zainah Khan packed for GW last year, she left her swimsuit behind.
The Saudi Arabian native knew she wouldn’t be able to swim in the Lerner Health and Wellness Center because it is open to both male and female students.
If she donned a bathing suit in HelWell, the sophomore would risk being seen without her hijab – a headscarf worn by some Muslim women in public – and in immodest clothing, which goes against the basic tenants of her religion.
But this fall, Khan and other female followers of the Islam religion have the opportunity to dive in.
Last week, the Muslim Students’ Association and the University opened up “Sisters’ Splash,” a female-only hour at the pool.
Every week, GW plans to close the HelWell pool to men and will cover the glass door with a dark tarp, giving female Muslim students the chance to swim at their leisure. The University also hired a female lifeguard to be on duty for each week’s event.
Aliya Karim, the social chair of the MSA’s women’s group, said the organization made the effort to coordinate the swimming hour so fellow Muslims would feel comfortable in the pool.
“Personally, I would only want to go when just girls are there,” Karim, who is also a Hatchet photographer, said.
Rahiba Noor, a junior who serves as the community service chair of the MSA, said that prior to attending GW, swimming laps at a private pool was an important part of her health regimen. At school, however, Noor said she’s resigned herself to staying away from the water and using a treadmill.
“Religious values always define us,” Noor said. “Although I wouldn’t really mind, it would be satisfying to me religiously to swim only with girls.”
For some Muslims, being in public without a hijab puts them at odds with fundamental aspects of Islam.
Khan said to swim in a pool where men could see her, she would have to cover her entire body, including wearing something over her head.
“You could swim around men, but it would be hard, it would be a hassle,” Khan said.
Valdez Williams, the operations manager of the gym, said the University helped the MSA coordinate the weekly swim hour because GW wanted to make the girls feel comfortable.
“At GW, we try to take care of all of our students,” Williams said. “As long as it’s requested and works within our policies and procedures, we will generally accommodate them.”
Williams said the University would try to schedule one hour each week for the female students to have private access.
“The girls should be able to swim here,” Williams said. “We will not penalize them because of their religious beliefs.”