Q: I have noticed many Somali families who use the facilities at the YMCA and most of the women wear head scarves or qamar, long shirts, and long skirts. I’ve wondered though about how they feel being surrounded by non-Muslims who are obviously following very different dress codes. Do the differences in what is modest or immodest make Somalis (and other Muslims) uncomfortable?
A: I have many non-Muslim friends and sometimes I’m invited to pool parties, or occasionally we have family get-togethers in the home of a relative who has a pool and people around me are usually wearing two-pieces. It doesn’t bother me, and I have not noticed it bothering my Somali family and friends. I guess we kind of know that it is the norm in America and that it comes with the territory. Sometimes I kind of wish we were allowed to wear some of the swim suits I see girls wearing, especially the polka-dots. I like polka-dots; they look so adorable.
I should also mention that while Somalis and Muslims in general wear more modest clothes out in public, some don’t follow this rule. While some women might have different ideas about what is appropriate to wear to a pool, it’s not the simple act of seeing another person in a tiny outfit is enough to make us uncomfortable. If I’m going to be uncomfortable around someone wearing a bikini, it’s because that particular person is the last person on earth who should be wearing one. But it is their choice and I respect that.
I know it makes the males uncomfortable being around women wearing swim suits that show a little bit of skin, but that is for a completely different reason and it has nothing to do with religion, if you know what I mean.
A while back, I was at the YWCA at Lake and Hiawatha with my Somali friend and her two kids. She was in the pool wearing a long skirt and t-shirt standing on the shallow end of the pool chatting with an African-American woman who was born in America. They were talking about kids and how much harder it is to potty-train boys than girls. The African-American woman was wearing a two-piece swimsuit and neither of them was noticing what the other was wearing. I’m always awe-struck when I see people set aside their differences and communicate like people who have things in common, rather than focusing on the things that separate them.