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Swimmer leads change by keeping faith

In the first of a series on Muslim girls and women in sport in New Zealand, Ashley Stanley speaks to Noha Nasef, an ocean swimmer comfortable competing under full cover, who wants women wearing a hijab to be a normal sight in sport. 

Noha Nasef chose to take up open water swimming because she knew she wouldn’t stand out in a wetsuit.

The research scientist knows the importance of keeping active, but she also needs to stay true to her beliefs and cover up in public as a Muslim woman.

“With open water swimming, you're kind of allowed to wear whatever you want. So I cover up in full, but it's not as obvious because other people are wearing wetsuits as well,” says Nasef.

For a while, Nasef, a university researcher in Palmerston North, didn't swim as often, unnerved by people staring at her hijab. 

Success in sport and recreation participation for Nasef would be to see Muslim women representing themselves the way they’re meant to.

“We are starting to see in some sports women wearing the full hijab, while running, skating and stuff like that. But there is a lot of criticism of these women; sometimes they are not allowed to participate, or compete because it doesn’t fit into the general guidelines of dress codes,” she says.

“I would love to see that this is no longer an issue, where women can compete with a proper hijab and it just becomes a normal part of the sporting scene.”

 
 

Out of the water, Nasef is a postdoctoral fellow at the Riddet Institute at Massey University, where her research areas of interest are the health impacts of food.

Last year, she was on the other side of the research equation as a participant in a University of Waikato study looking at the experiences of Muslim girls and women in sport and recreation in Aotearoa.

There were two studies completed and combined into one report - titled ‘Building Cultural Inclusion in Sport’ - after the Christchurch mosque attacks last year.

Professor Holly Thorpe and Dr Nida Ahmad led the research, which focuses on understanding how Muslim women access sport and active recreation here, and the challenges they face when they do.

The study presented a trifecta for Nasef, who could bring together her interests in health research, sport and faith.

Noha Nasef swam less often when people stared at her wearing her hijab. Photo: supplied. 

Nasef was a teenager when she moved to New Zealand with her family 20 years ago and completed her schooling here. Her parents are originally from Egypt, but they moved around a lot when she was a child.

No matter where they were, Nasef was always drawn to water. She joined a swim squad in Auckland and is now part of a squad in Palmerston North, where she moved three years ago.

“I’ve always loved swimming. I was born a water baby, so I absolutely loved it, but it was always casual,” she says.

“When I became an adult, [swimming] was less frequent because when I started wearing the hijab, people would stare and things like that. It sort of starts to become unnerving and stressful.”

Before discovering open water swimming a couple of years ago, most of the information Nasef was aware of around Muslim women's experiences with water activities was from incidents reported overseas.

“In some places, Muslim women are banned from wearing the burkini at the beach, so that information made it a little more stressful to swim here, even though it’s usually quite good in New Zealand,” Nasef says.

But her love of water was reignited after completing Auckland’s ‘Swim the Bridge’ 1km event.

“I remember my swim squad instructor was a little nervous because I was telling him I’d never done open water [swimming] before. It was a really cold day, but accomplishing it was amazing,” she says. “I do my own open water swimming at the beach or even in the Manawatu River now; it's just something I absolutely love.”

In the future, Nasef may consider swimming more seriously. But for now, seeing improvements in her own times provides enough competition.

The ‘Building Cultural Inclusion in Sport’ report highlighted “there are so many women who have different versions of the same problem.” From the get-go, there is a misunderstanding of what the problem is from a sport facilitator’s perspective and from the point of view of Muslim women.

“The facilitators think the problem is completely cultural and families are restrictive,” Nasef explains. “But in reality we do not have the right spaces to be able to comfortably do our sport or be able to be part of sport.”

Nasef says the research project covers an area where insights are needed.

“I was glad that somebody in New Zealand had decided to do this work. And it was done in a very culturally sensitive way. Nida [Ahmad], the person running this research for Holly, is a Muslim woman so it wasn’t done from a ‘window’ where you’re looking at a completely different population you know nothing about,” she says.

Professor Holly Thorpe (left) and Dr Nida Ahmad. Photo: supplied. 

Ahmad, a US-born Muslim woman living in Hamilton to complete her PhD studies, has an extensive background working with Muslim women in sport. She is on the steering committee of the Muslim Woman in Sport Network, a global group wanting to “advance the status and recognition of the role that Muslim women play in sport.”

She’s also been researching the digital lives of Muslim sportswomen and how they are using social media to represent aspects of their identities.

Nasef’s suggestions on how to implement findings from the report begin with having the courage to ask questions. Opening up conversations is a good way to start to help Muslim women and people working in sport and recreation, she says.

“It's completely fine to ask questions, especially when it's done for genuine reasons. You get people who ask questions in a derogatory manner, but most of the time, they just need to understand,” says Nasef.

“There are certain things as Muslims that we cannot do and that’s okay. It’s not going to be a ‘my way or the highway kind of thing, which is what I've always seen in other countries. That’s been one of the challenges for me to take up sport more seriously.”

Nasef says there are a number of ways sporting organisations and people involved in sport can help to make Muslim women and girls feel more comfortable in sport settings.

“I think one of the main things for me, especially for somebody who swims, is actually revising the guidelines for sportswear,” she says.

“There needs to be a more logical understanding of sportswear, not just because ‘this is the way it’s always been done’. So then someone can actually wear a full dress, which is still flexible to run in, and they won't overheat,” she says.

Over 300 young refugees tried out new sports at the Olympic Refugee Sports Day in Auckland. Photo: @NZOlympics

Another point important to Nasef is having an advisory committee to help educate facilitators about different ethnicities.

“Not necessarily just for Muslims, but even when we’re talking about Maori or Pacific Islanders. Just to be more culturally aware about the differences there are and how we like to do sport - keeping in mind there are different ethnicities and people who have different needs,” she says.

Needs such as safe spaces for women to train and play sport, and understand one of the uncomfortable situations for Muslim women – being touched by men, especially those who are not family members.  

“You get the male coaches, for example, and it’s done with good intention – trying to show you a particular move. But that’s not very comfortable for Muslim women, so having a female, where possible, to show you how to do things will help,” Nasef says.

Sports spaces could also have multi-use rooms to accommodate prayers, as Muslim people can pray up to five times a day. Being aware of dietary restrictions is another point to consider, if food is provided as part of competitive play.

It may seem like a lot, but if conversations are not encouraged, there will be limited opportunities to take steps to learn and change the status quo.

“It’s a really sticky thing. But my choices are to be Muslim, or not to be Muslim. This is part of my identity,” says Nasef.

Her advice to Muslim women or girls wanting to take up sport is to “go for it.”

“If you're passionate about it, go into it and get it done. You just have to find ways in which you can achieve those goals and make sure you put in the effort,” Nasef says.

“Be vocal, be heard and be active. Even if it can be challenging - sometimes you will come across someone looking at you or saying something inappropriate. We’ve all been through it, but don’t let it put you off something you enjoy.”

Embracing New Zealand’s diverse population will build connections and understandings of people and our small country will be the richer for it.

“True diversity and inclusion means you are willing to have the difficult conversations, make necessary changes and challenge the central dogmas to find common grounds that work for everybody, not just a few. That would be true diversity for me,” says Nasef.

If she continues to practise her own advice, Nasef will be standing out from the crowd for her strong character and beliefs - not her choice of clothing.

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