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Jumping into the deep end in Baghdad

For a female reporter, a swim that promised to be a break from gender restrictions unveils a different kind of barrier.

July 29, 2007|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — When one of my Iraqi co-workers invited me to go swimming the other day, I wasn't sure what she meant. Sure, we have an outdoor swimming pool at our hotel, but it's pretty much off limits to us -- we're women.

It hasn't always been this way. I've heard stories from other female reporters about how in 2003 they would lounge by the hotel pool, drinking beers and taking afternoon dips as helicopters buzzed overhead. And Baghdad once had at least a dozen public pools where men and women swam together.

But Muslim religious leaders have clamped down on women's public attire. Just last week, the Iraqi parliament debated the morality of coed swimming, a U.S. State Department official said.

Given that environment, in the interest of modesty, most women don't use the hotel pool during the day.

Instead, we walk past, draped in scarves and ankle-length tunics, and stare longingly at the rectangle of aqua water or, if men are splashing around, avert our eyes. After dark sometimes, we creep down with friends and strip to one-piece swimsuits under long pants to swim a few laps. If men are eating on the deck near the deep end, they usually stare.

But my co-worker wasn't talking about our pool. She explained that Tuesdays are "family day" at the pool in the Babylon Hotel.

Women and children only. No men.

"Do the women wear head scarves?" I asked. No, she said, of course not. What about abayas, the ankle-length gowns I wear here? No. Maybe they wore the full-coverage swimsuits I had seen in the U.S., spandex body suits with matching head covers? No again.

"I know," she said, "I couldn't believe it myself."

And then she really shocked me: "Some of them even wear bikinis."

I imagined a pool deck full of Iraqi women reclining in two-piece suits, slipping on enormous sunglasses and sipping Diet Pepsis. I could just picture the eager men craning their necks from hotel windows above to get a look. An island of female liberation in the increasingly restrictive capital.

I had to see it.

So on Tuesday, we drove over wearing our head scarves and gowns, carrying a bag full of swimsuits, caps, earplugs and an inflatable pool toy shaped like a tire.

At the hotel, we followed stairs up to a long, carpeted corridor leading to the pool, passing under an ornate wooden archway that still featured a sign from olden days warning swimmers not to forget their membership cards.

After paying an entrance fee of 10,000 Iraqi dinars each, about $8, we were in.

We stepped into a locker room labeled "ladies," but it seemed abandoned, so we headed for the room marked "gentlemen" in English and Arabic. Inside, a woman wearing a black T-shirt over a black one-piece swimsuit was helping her two sons change on the cracked tile floor. The place had the same chlorine smell of public pools in the U.S.

My mood lifted as we shed our head scarves and I watched my co-worker emerge in a tankini-style flowered two-piece, shaking out her short hair.

"I feel free," she said, smiling.

But as soon as we emerged from the locker room, my fantasy ended.

First of all, it was an indoor pool -- no terrace, no deck chairs, no reclining beauties. The pool water was grayish, nearly opaque, probably because of all the chlorine. It made me think of recent cholera outbreaks in the capital and the spread of polio through U.S. public pools in the 1950s.

Not nearly as inviting as the pool I'd imagined, or even the hotel pool.

But as I stepped over to the edge, a young woman immediately surfaced next to me in a neon green two-piece suit. I noticed she also wore a gold necklace and rings, long black hair pulled back into a ponytail and heavy eye makeup miraculously intact. Come this way, she said, and took my hand, leading me to a set of stairs in the shallow end. My co-worker followed.

The water was cool, the crowd of about 20 people welcoming. Soon we were surrounded by young women clamoring for attention from the tall, pale American and her friend. Some wore T-shirts over modest swimsuits, others low-cut, strappy two-piece suits -- revealing, but nothing like the bikinis I'd pictured. They all had questions: Where were we from? Did we speak Arabic? Could we go underwater? Could we swim to the deep end? I showed them I could, doing the strong crawl I learned back in summer camp. One woman, awed, confided to my friend that she had thought I was lying.

Most of them said they didn't really know how to swim. So they stuck to the shallow end or inched along the pool walls. Boys in swim goggles cannonballed beside them. Little girls in Barbie swimsuits abandoned their water wings, then scampered out of the water to reclaim them.

Several women introduced themselves in English, including a young woman from Baghdad in a T-shirt-swimsuit combo who said she used to work for the U.S. Army. This was her first trip to the pool, she said. She had brought her mother-in-law, who also spoke English, explaining that she learned it from American movies.

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