It wasn’t the first time Tahsiyn A. Ismaa-eel had taken a group of kids to the Foster Brown Public pool in Wilmington, Del.
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Ismaa-eel, who runs a summer Arabic enrichment program, has taken her elementary school kids to the pool for four years now, and had yet to encounter any problem in the progressive town of Wilmington.
That changed this summer, Delaware News Journal reports.
On June 25, Ismaa-eel was at the pool when some of her kids were told they had to leave the pool because they were wearing cotton clothing: shirts, shorts, and yes, hijabs.
According to the News Journal, Ismaa-eel, who wears a hijab and niqab covering her face said a pool manager told her cotton clothing was prohibited in public pools, adding that in her experience, the rule had “never been enforced.” When she said she would relay the information to their parents, but that wasn’t enough.
According to her, a police officer later approached her and asked her what time she and her kids would be leaving.
From Delaware News Journal:
“She said there are people waiting to get in and waiting for you to leave,” Ismaa’eel said of the officer.
She thought it was strange her children would be asked to leave when she said there was another camp that had been at the pool longer.
“No one is bothering them,” she said. “We were approached first about the cotton, and then it became, ‘Oh, the pool is overcapacity so you need to leave.’ ... I felt very unwanted.”
Ismaa-eel, who owns and runs the Darul-Amaanah Academy and directs its summer program, says what happened to her and her program participants is discrimination.
“There’s nothing posted that says you can’t swim in cotton,” she told the News Journal. “At the same time, there are other kids with cotton on. … I asked, ‘Why are my kids being treated differently?’”
As footage from the pool shows, many of the children participating in the program are black.
Mayor Mike Purzycki apologized Saturday night for the city’s response to Ismaa-eel and her group after the News Journal published a story about it, but city officials appear to be doubling down on the no-cotton rule, seeming to blame the incident on a poorly-worded swimsuit policy.
“I apologize to the children who were directed to leave a city pool because of the religious-required clothing they were wearing,” Purzycki told the News Journal in a statement. “We also referred to vaguely-worded pool policies to assess and then justify our poor judgement, and that was also wrong.”
The policy doesn’t specifically outline what constitutes “proper attire,” except to list “cut off jeans” as an example.
Wilmington Deputy Chief of Staff For Policy and Communication John Rago says the cotton clothing is a safety issue, and that a new set of guidelines to be posted prominently at public pools will outline exactly what swimmers can wear. According to Rago, the signage will read: “Swimmers must wear proper swimwear (swimwear composed of Nylon, Lycra, Spandex, and Polyester is permitted, but cotton and wool clothes are not permitted.)”
Ismaa-eel, who says she’s been “harassed” twice since June 25 about her kids’ cotton clothing, said she’s informed parents of the new rules, but that many of her participants’ parents, who live below the poverty line, simply can’t afford to buy new swimwear. Hijabs and more modest swimwear can be particularly pricey, she added.
Foster Brown public pool’s confrontation with Ismaa-eel is reminiscent of other incidences this summer in which black patrons have been questioned and harassed simply for attending, though the religious dynamic adds another twist to what’s become an exhausting, repetitive story.
Muslim women, particularly those who wear hijab, have had similar confrontations at American pools before. In one NPR story from 2005, Ann Fuller, a community center director, recounted trying to bring a group of Muslim women to a private pool. She says she and her group were questioned and barred from entering.
For her part, Ismaa-eel recalls wearing cotton clothing when she swam at Prices Run pool (now Joseph R. Biden Aquatic Center), when she was young.
“Kids wear what they have,” she said, “To me, it was heartbreaking to have kids taken out of the pool. ... They were completely confused.”
Rago says until the new signs are posted, Ismaa-eel’s kids can continue swimming at Wilmington public pools as they are.