A woman stands by the edge of Matty Eckler pool in the east end of Toronto. She wears a black burqini – a special bathing suit that covers her arms, head and legs. The only skin showing is her round face, hands and feet. The instructor is in the water, holding a blue pool noodle in front of her, and urging her to jump in.

The woman hesitates, leans forward again – and backs away. In her place, a thin Vietnamese woman with a dark ponytail and a blue, one-piece swimsuit steps forward and springs off the deck.

There are about 10 women in the class today. It’s a female-only swimming lesson offered through the City of Toronto. Many of the participants are immigrants who have never learned to swim – others had a bad experience around the water when they were young, and kept away.

The female-only class is popular for many reasons. Some Muslim women don’t feel comfortable wearing swimwear in the presence of men. Other women just like the idea of learning to swim in the company of other supportive women. And after the high number of drownings in Ontario last summer, classes like these are a good way to help ensure a safe summer-in-the-water experience when the temperature soars.

In the shallow end, an instructor pulls one of the women across the width of the pool, as she kicks her feet and occasionally puts her face under the water. Two students, both wearing blue aquafit belts, take turns tugging each other across. Further out, other students practise their front crawl as an instructor calls encouragement from the deck.

At least three of the women arrived to the pool wearing niqabs, one of those women is a Muslim from Sri Lanka.

“In my culture,” she tells me, “we don’t mix with men. Especially not for swimming.” She’s wearing a black bathing suit with leggings. If it weren’t for classes like these, she wouldn’t be able to swim her unsteady but promising front crawl across the shallow end.

Another woman says she used to swim a lot as a kid. But when she was 15, her sister and cousin decided to tip their canoe over and swim underneath, into the air pocket. She tried, but her head hit the seat of the canoe, and she couldn’t get up for air. She’s been afraid of the water ever since, and never became a strong swimmer.

Now she’s knee-diving into the deep end. “They make you do things you’re not comfortable with,” she says. “And everyone else does it. The peer pressure works.”

The woman in the black burqini inches toward the edge of the deck. Three other students have jumped in before her. She asks the instructor to hold her hand, and she leans over slowly. Finally, she makes the plunge, and the other students clap and cheer as she splashes toward the pool edge.

Call 311 to see if female-only lessons are offered at your local recreation centre – registration for the winter session starts this week.

– Read more of Carolyn Morris’ columns at www.metronews.ca/carolynmorris

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