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Updated Jul 31, 2020
Children play in the sea at Nungwi Beach on the island of Zanzibar. (Gulshan Khan/via AFP)
Children play in the sea while a woman looks on at Nungwi Beach on the island of Zanzibar. (Gulshan Khan/via AFP)

In Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous islands off the coast of Tanzania, very few women know how to swim. Some of this is cultural: Zanzibar remains a deeply conservative religious society where the mainly Muslim population expects women to dress modestly, precluding them from wearing revealing swimwear. This also reinforces cultural biases that insist women only occupy themselves with domestic tasks and child-rearing.

 

Empowerment

To push back against this stigma, Siti Haji started her own swim classes for young Muslim women. Gathering in the clear waters of the Indian Ocean, Haji teaches the girls how to float, swim against the current, and manage their breathing. She and her team have taught about 5,000 women how to keep afloat in the water, and she hopes to teach more, both for their own empowerment and to dispel some of the patriarchal attitudes that keep them out of the sea.

Haji’s work builds on the efforts of the Panje Project, an organization formed in 2011, initially to assist the youth of the northern Zanzibari village of Nungwi with educational development. It soon began to teach young women how to swim and providing them with burkinis—full-length swimsuits—to make it easy for them to get into the water without compromising their religious and cultural beliefs.

 

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