Most women in Sudan will cover their arms, legs and head when they are outside or in public. There are a range of outfits that women use to achieve this, from the most conservative women who wear a tight head scarf, gloves and an abaya, to those who wear skinny jeans, a flowing long-sleeved top and a scarf draped loosely over the back of their head.
When they are alone in the swimming pool however, there are arms and legs aplenty. Whilst a few women choose to wear cropped running leggings and short-sleeved rash vests, most wear scoop-necked swimming costumes which have short sleeves and short legs under a short ruffled skirt. Invariably, they wear a swimming hat but that is less to do with covering their head and more to do with protected their hair from the chlorine.
It may seem odd to compare swimwear to the clothes a person might wear in the street. After all, my own swimming costume would raise a few eyebrows if I wore it whilst walking round the supermarket. However, my first experience of women’s swimwear in Sudan was in March 2015 when the women went to practice some simple rescue techniques in the Nile. Because they were on the beach, the day-to-day guidelines about what to wear in public applied.
Most of the women were in long-sleeved, high-necked t-shirts, with their legs fully covered in tracksuit bottoms or running leggings. They all wore swimming hats and some had a hood or scarf over the top of that. Finally, some of the women wore a short dress over their tops and trousers to further hide their shape. That is an outfit that is difficult to swim in, even if you are a strong swimmer.
At the beginning of the female lifeguard programme in September 2015 I had concerns that the women would struggle to pass a lifeguard exam in that kind of “swimwear”. As it was, I was pleasantly surprised.
The challenges of running programmes for women in strict Muslim countries exist but they are significantly over-stated, something that was reinforced for me at the World Conference on Drowning Prevention in November 2015 when I spoke with other women about programmes they were running in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
At the moment, I think it would be impossible to run a mixed-gender lifeguard course in Sudan, but the catch is we don’t need to. In a conservative Muslim society, female lifeguards will only lifeguard female sessions, and so only need to train with females. And in a conservative Muslim society, behind closed doors, there is a whole different world, especially for women.