Though she attended a few lessons as a child, BBC radio presenter Summaya Mughal never actually learnt how to swim. Then at 27 she decided it was the right time to take lessons. From here, the podcast Brown Gal Can’t Swim was born - delving into Summaya’s personal journey, alongside all the barriers that the South Asian community face when it comes to getting in the pool. Perfect for our empowerment issue, we learn all about her eight-week swimming mission, modesty in sport and the emotional challenge of learning to swim as an adult…
Swimming. It’s a skill that many people master as kids. Something that we take for granted. But still, drowning is the third-largest accidental killer in the world, and according to Swim England, one in three adults in England can’t swim. That’s why BBC presenter Summaya Mughal decided to document her journey of learning to swim through Brown Gal Can’t Swim - the podcast which breaks down the cultural barriers to swimming in the South Asian community, calling in help from Olympic pros like Nottinghamshire’s Rebecca Adlington and Alice Dearing. “Brown Gal Can’t Swim is me finally doing that thing I’ve been putting off for two decades,” Summaya explains, “and I hope that sharing my journey will inspire others too.”
Focusing on the South Asian community specifically, Summaya says that there are plenty of (what she calls) ‘perceived barriers’ to swimming. Things that might have prevented people from accessing swimming lessons and pools. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, is the struggle around modest swimwear for women in the Islamic community. “Modestly is very important for many women in Islam, so if they feel they can only wear a swimming costume with arms and legs out, they just aren’t going to go swimming,” Summaya explains, “and likewise, for me, it was important to find swimwear that I felt represented both my British and Pakistani heritage, particularly because I wanted to relate to the Muslim community and illustrate that there are options that fall between a burkini and a normal costume.”
It’s also just more unlikely that South Asian people are going to know how to learn to swim because of cultural factors, and while “there are definitely Pakistani and Muslim people who can swim, in my family and through the conversations I’ve had with others in the community, I know that physical ability isn’t as prioritised as academia,” Summaya says. “My dad was born in Pakistan, which is a largely landlocked country, so he didn’t go swimming or learn to swim because it’s not in their education. You have to consider people’s heritage. The reason that many people can’t swim is because of this generational factor.” But, Summaya reiterates, it’s really important that people do learn to swim, despite all the challenges - because, ultimately, it has the potential to save your life.
My dad was born in Pakistan which is a largely landlocked country, so he didn’t learn to swim because it’s not in their education
That’s not to say it wasn’t a journey without bumps for Summaya, and over the eight weeks she learned to swim, Summaya was challenged both physically, emotionally and culturally, with the podcast causing tension within her family - something that she decided to share with podcast listeners via an audio clip of her and her brother’s disagreement about modesty. It was “terrifying”, she says, to include “the people I love most in my life talking about religion, culture and identity. Usually, arguments are behind closed doors, so to bring this into the public sphere was frightening.” Yet it was also important, because, as Summaya says, it was her aim for this podcast to resonate with men as well as women, so she felt including her dad and brother was vital. “I involved my dad as a doctor and a community leader because he can relate to the men in these families and encourage them, their wives and their daughters to swim. I can’t relate to blokes, but my father can. Like many people who have a dual heritage, I experienced that tension of having two identities that are so different. So, I know this experience [around identity and family tension] is one many people relate to.”
Additionally, the physical act of learning to swim was intimidating to Summaya. “I was scared of drowning. I was scared of deep water. I was scared of my feet not touching the ground. Terrified at the lack of control.” And, on top of that, “Dealing with shame and anxiety was massive. Not being able to swim was a secret I’d kept my whole life.” So, when she did finally return to Southglade Leisure Centre in Bestwood, where she had taken a few lessons as a child, it wasn’t long before she burst into tears. “It was bringing up all those emotions of being a child and being anxious, being embarrassed, and finally doing something about it. This journey has been amazing, but not without mad emotional tests.”
It was terrifying to include the people I love most in my life talking about religion, culture and identity
But it was a journey which came with plenty of support, largely from Summaya’s swimming teacher, Victoria Charles, who helped with the physical side of learning to swim, and Rebecca Adlington and Alice Dearing, who Summaya describes as being her “emotional and mental champions”, commenting that their involvement and pep talks acted as a massive confidence boost. Plus, of course, Summaya’s friends and family acted as her wider support system, as well as those who followed her journey online, all of whom offered up constant words of encouragement and support.
Culminating in one final challenge, Summaya finished her eight week swimming programme by taking part in a 500 metre cold water swim - an idea that began with Adlington and which seems fitting considering the project's emphasis on safety and drowning prevention. Taking place on a rainy, cold day in October, it was undoubtedly the biggest trial of the journey, yet Summaya admits that it was actually one of the first times she really enjoyed swimming. Surrounded by her loved ones, who were all wearing big duffle coats and massive woolly bobble hats, she felt exhilarated. “Though I was tired and it was difficult, I was just focused on getting from one buoy in the water to another, and that was it.” She finished the challenge able to swim and having started a conversation to help others too. We’d call that a success.
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