The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Muslim girls kicked out of public pool after officials said hijabs would clog filtration system

Authorities kicked hijab-wearing Muslim students out of a pool in Delaware. (Courtesy of Tahsiyn Ismaa’eel)
Placeholder while article actions load

Tahsiyn Ismaa’eel has been taking children from her Wilmington, Del., summer camp to Foster Brown pool for years. She can see the free public pool from the back of her school, Darul Amaanah Academy, so about 3:30 p.m., the hottest point in the day, they routinely donned their swimming attire and walked over.

And just as regularly, Ismaa’eel said, they experienced anti-Islamic harassment.

It started the first day Ismaa’eel and about 15 children went to the pool in late June. A staff member told her that her children couldn’t wear “that cotton” to the pool, she said during an interview with The Washington Post.

But “that cotton” included clothes required by their Islamic faith: hijabs for the girls, but also modest dress that typically covered their shoulders and most of their legs — even in the pool.

Pool officials spoke of the dangerous weight of wet cotton and said the girls’ religiously required clothing could put a strain on the pool’s filtration system. They cited a vaguely worded, unposted policy.

Ismaa’eel cited the Koran, explaining that the children were required to dress modestly. That’s why many of the little girls in her group wore hijabs and T-shirts and shorts that come down to their knees.

The camp director grew up in Wilmington, has swum in that pool before and has been bringing overheated children to splash in it for years. In all that time, she’d never seen anyone wearing cotton asked to leave.

But Ismaa’eel said she — and the students at her summer Arabic enrichment program — picked up notes of something more sinister this time.

“We, as a group, were being talked about,” Ismaa’eel said. “One child said they heard the word ‘Muslim.’ ”

Maxi dresses, cardigans and hijabs: Essentials in Macy’s new fashion line aimed at Muslim women

The conflict reached a climax last week when a pool official tapped several of Ismaa’eel’s hijab-wearing wards on the shoulder and told them they had to leave.

“I believe it was discrimination, deep down in my bones,” she told The Post.

If there is a policy, it should be posted and applied to everybody, she said. Her students “were not allowed to enjoy a public facility that everyone has access to.”

She was apparently not the only person to feel that way.

“All Americans are entitled to reasonable religious accommodations while using public facilities,” said Zainab Chaudry, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “And it is unlawful to discriminate against members of any group because of their religious attire.”

Public outcry ensued as word spread, and Saturday, Mayor Mike Purzycki reaffirmed “the city’s long-standing policy that all people are welcome at city pools.”

He faulted not just the city’s handling of the incident but also the justifications it made after the children were kicked out.

“We should be held accountable for what happened and how poorly we assessed this incident,”  Purzycki said in a statement. “I apologize to the children who were directed to leave a city pool because of the religious-required clothing they were wearing. We also referred to vaguely-worded pool policies to assess and then justify our poor judgment, and that was also wrong.”

Purzycki said he planned to meet soon with the camp director to address her concerns and apologize in person.

Ismaa’eel  said she was happy with the mayor’s apology — at least until she and her kids trekked to the pool on Monday.

Sitting there was the same woman who kicked them out last week.

“If she really did do something wrong, why is she still there?” Ismaa’eel said. “That would be the biggest apology.”

She didn’t stick around for another “I’m sorry.”

Instead she turned the children around, marched back to the school and started the van.

A short time later, she went live on Facebook, shooting an image of a little girl in tights, a life jacket and a hijab, wading into a pool.

“When they shut down one pool on you,” Ismaa’eel wrote,  “go have fun in another.”

Read more:

Mug shots showing Muslim women without hijabs were ‘a form of public shaming,’ protester claims

‘Take it off! This is America!’: Man who yanked hijab pleads guilty to religious obstruction

This attorney wore a Black Lives Matter pin to court — and went to jail for it

Why a turban-wearing Sikh actor who was barred from boarding a plane refused to fly home