A bright summer day at a Delaware public pool took a dark turn after staffers began harassing Muslim children over their choice of conservative swimming attire.
Female students from a local Islamic summer camp had been visiting the Wilmington pool for the past four summers. In following with their families’ strict interpretation of Islamic rules, many of the students chose to sport modest t-shirts, leggings and even headscarves. It was apparently never an issue.
But last month, during a regularly scheduled visit to the pool, a manager confronted the group and informed them that cotton clothing was forbidden in the water. Feeling pressured to leave, they packed up their things and went home disappointed.
Targeted for Harassment
Camp director Tahsiyn Ismaa’eel took particular issue with the way the situation was handled. “If you are making us so uncomfortable that we aren’t enjoying a public facility, if you’re pressuring us by asking what time we’re going to leave … I got the message,” she explained.
She followed up with Wilmington’s parks and recreation department and was assured the incident had nothing to do with religious attire. But when they tried to return, the same thing occurred. In fact, it happened on three more separate occasions – despite no visible postings of the pool’s rules about cotton fabric. This led Ismaa’eel to believe her kids were being unfairly discriminated against due to their Islamic beliefs.
“The bottom line is, if you have a policy, it has to be written, posted and applied across the board ― not arbitrarily. What happened at Brown pool, from my estimation, is that [the pool manager] weaponized an unwritten policy to target us and to try to keep us out of the pool, to antagonize us and get us banned from the pool.”
City officials initially told The Delaware News Journal the cotton ban was a matter of public safety, given that such a heavy wet fabric could strain the pool’s filtration system.
But in the end, the mayor of Wilmington was forced to apologize and admit that city officials “used poor judgment” when balancing the students’ religious clothing requirements against the rather obscure pool rules. The city is now planning to post signs clearly communicating that all swimmers must wear nylon, spandex or polyester swimwear.
The incident, however, will surely leave a bad taste for anyone left wondering if Orthodox Jewish and Christian children – who are also encouraged to dress modestly while swimming – would have received similar treatment.
Are Muslims Being Singled Out?
Legislation targeting Muslim swimwear has swept across Europe in recent years, sparking intense debate in places like France, Switzerland and Austria. Numerous cities have banned the burkini (a swimsuit designed specifically for Muslim women) from swimming pools and beaches, citing reasons ranging from hygiene to safety concerns.
The Delaware incident, however, shows that prejudice may be a greater factor behind such rules than we’d like to think. Are these restrictions really in place to protect public safety, or because we’re uncomfortable with another way of dress?