Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A place for Muslim women

After six years of borrowed space, hopes are high for new centre

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Although she grew up in a warm climate, Sawaan Hamood only learned to swim after a midwinter move to Winnipeg.

"Back home, no one allowed us to go swimming. It was just men and boys," explains the Iraqi-born Hamood through an interpreter.

"It is a hot country, but we are not allowed to go into the pools."

Hamood learned to swim -- and love the water -- through a female-only swimming program organized by the Canadian Muslim Women's Institute at the city-owned Sherbrook Pool.

The institute's mandate includes providing programs and services for Muslim women such as Hamood in order to adapt to their new lives in Canada, explains institute president Yasmin Ali.

After six years in borrowed spaces, Ali hopes the institute's new and spacious home in a former garment factory, Gemini Fashions on Juno Street, will allow the organization to expand its programming and continue to fund existing ones, such as the 10-week swimming program.

The new location adjoins Peerless Garments, where the institute runs an employment-training program and sewing workshop for Muslim women.

"We're a service-oriented agency for Muslim women," says Ali of the organization, which operates on a modest $80,000 annual budget, mostly from grants and donations.

"We need a centre for women, we need a place," adds outreach worker Ahlam Jasim, one of two part-time employees of the institute.

"They (our clients) share the same faith, they want someone to trust, to show them what kinds of resources there are in Winnipeg."

The new space also houses a demonstration kitchen for nutrition classes, a classroom for English-language instruction, a clothing bank and a halal community pantry.

Halal food follows the dietary laws of Islam.

As women are trained on the commercial sewing machines, they are also introduced to the demands and expectations of a Canadian workplace, says Ali.

They also have the opportunity to earn money by sewing for the institute's fair-trade company, SewFair.

"We just want to give these ladies skills," says Ali, who has landed a small contract to make volunteer vests for a local hospital.

"We're providing them some training. If we can get some contracts, the money stays here, and we're supporting Winnipeggers."

That support -- and accommodation for Muslim expressions of faith, such as providing a space for prayers and permitting traditional clothing, including a hijab -- is important to sewing trainee Habiba Liben, originally from Somalia.

"I was wearing a long hijab and they didn't let me. They wanted a small hijab," she explains about the clothing guidelines at a cleaning company where she tried to find a job.

"They said I had to wear pants."

No one at the Canadian Muslim Women's Institute will insist women wear pants, although they are trying to design alternatives to a wrist-length hijab that could get caught in the high-speed sewing machines, says Ali.

While the institute is celebrating its new space, it also has to continually look for funding, says Ali.

Right now the women-only swim program, which costs $3,000 for 10 two-hour weekly sessions, is currently on hold until new funds are secured.

In the past, the female-only swim time -- complete with female instructors and lifeguards -- has attracted 100 girls and women to the warm waters of Sherbrook Pool, says Ali.

Traditionally, Muslim women cover themselves for reasons of modesty and would not wear swimsuits in the presence of men.

At these swimming classes, Ali says some women wear imported Islamic-style swimsuits, while others wear shorts and T-shirts over regular swimsuits.

For Hamood, enjoying the water at the Sherbrook Pool in the company of women allows her to maintain her Muslim modesty while getting some exercise.

"I love to swim, there was no chance before," says Hamood, who is anxious to get back in the pool.

 

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J16

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