Swimming Against the Tide: Muslim Girls Respond to the Removal of Girls-Only Swim Gym

A deeper-dive into the removal of girls-only swim gym and its effect on female Muslim students.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Swim gym has long been an infamous requirement for the Stuyvesant diploma. Stuyvesant students take a swim test at Camp Stuy before freshman year, and depending on their swimming proficiency, are programmed into a one semester swim gym class. Traditionally, there have been two types of swim gym classes: standard coed swim class and girls-only swim class. However, the latter was abruptly removed between the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years, leaving female students, especially female Muslim students, frustrated and without options. 

Girls-only swim gym was a safe haven for many female students who felt uncomfortable swimming in front of male students for religious or personal reasons. In Islam, it’s important for both genders to be as modest as possible. For women, it is standard to cover certain parts of the body and wear loose, unrevealing clothing, especially in the presence of men. Though the way Muslim women observe this custom differs from individual to individual, most female Muslim students feel uncomfortable participating in activities like coed swim gym because it requires students to wear swimwear, which is generally immodest, in front of male students. 

Sophomore Prajusha Azeem, who took a girls-only swim class in her freshman year, described how the class being all-girls was crucial to her experience. “[I] enjoy[ed] swim gym because it was only girls, and I felt really comfortable with everyone,” Azeem said. 

This year, Muslim girls expected Stuyvesant’s tradition of offering girls-only swim gym to continue. However, to their surprise, the class was suddenly removed without any formal announcement. Some students, such as Anonymous Sophomore A (who identifies as a Muslim female), didn’t find out that her class was coed until her first day. “When I attended the first day, [...] I was like, oh, I was supposed to be in all girls,” Sophomore A recalled. The sudden removal left her feeling confused, betrayed, and frustrated. “I kind of was a little mad because [...] why did they not even say anything?” Sophomore A said. “I would have appreciated it if they sent out an email or something. Just do something.”

Anonymous Sophomore B, who also identifies as a Muslim female, shared a similar experience. She too noted that there were disproportionately more males than females in her class, which furthered her discomfort: “I didn’t realize that until I walked in, and I only saw like two girls. And that was it. I was just like, something doesn’t add up here,” Sophomore B described. Not only was it appalling to suddenly be placed in a coed class, but the disproportionate ratio of males to females in the class made the change feel even more shocking and isolating. 

Sophomore Muna Faruqi, a Muslim student, initially thought that coed swim gym was a programming error after experiencing a similar situation in her freshman year. “I was not allowed to take all-girls swim gym in my freshman year because of some Talos mishap,” Faruqi explained. “Then, during my first semester of sophomore year, I was supposed to take a coed swim class.” She described her shock and bewilderment: “There’s no way, I can’t do that.”

As it became clear that a girls-only class was no longer offered, some students decided to opt out of swim entirely. For those with collaborative guidance counselors, the process was simple. Faruqi described how her guidance counselor, Sarah Kornhauser, supported her from early on. “[Kornhauser] made it so easy for me,” Faruqi said. “I could see the hard work she put into making sure that I could get that program change.” 

However, others weren’t as fortunate and had to endure a lengthy, difficult process instead. Sophomore B recounted that it took three months for her to be removed from her coed class, despite having a supportive guidance counselor: “I reached out to my counselor, then they sent me to an AP, and she would send me back and forth from my counselor [...] This all started in January, and it only ended recently by the end of April.” 

The program-change process was especially difficult because many staff members did not understand the issue coed swim gym presents for Muslim females. After expressing concerns about sacrificing modesty in coed swim, some students were simply told to wear a “burkini,” a “modest” alternative to typical swimsuits: the tunic-like tops, which are worn with long pants, extend to one’s thighs, providing full coverage of the arms and chest. Yet, the modesty these garments provide is a debatable topic among Muslim women. 

For some, participating in coed swim in “burkinis” was manageable, but far from convenient. Freshman Jareefah Alam, a Muslim female who wears the hijab, partook in coed swim class last semester. She expressed how being in a coed environment made her constantly on guard. “I would have been a lot more comfortable with just girls; I wouldn’t have to be so worried,” Alam said. “Obviously, I had to wear a Halal swimsuit. If my hair showed, I had to worry about fixing it.” 

Others feel that burkinis don’t preserve enough modesty for them to be feasible solutions for all affected students. Faruqi described her experience searching for modest swimwear: “I searched it up, but the stuff that they make that’s supposed to be modest actually isn’t. When you go into the water, it sticks to [your] skin, and it defeats the entire purpose of modest swimwear,” Faruqi explained.

Despite feeling uncomfortable about taking coed swim classes, many students were unsure whether they should drop the class because of concerns about their Stuyvesant-endorsed diplomas. To clarify, the Stuyvesant diploma isn’t an actual diploma, but rather a sticker seal that symbolizes the completion of certain extra classes, including swim gym and technology courses. Many of these classes aren’t required at most New York City public schools, making recipients stand out from others across the city.

Hence, sophomore Fabiha Khan, a Muslim student who dropped the Stuyvesant-endorsed diploma when she dropped swim gym, expressed concerns that not receiving the Stuyvesant-endorsed diploma would hinder her college application process. “When applying to colleges, I know they’re gonna ask why I don’t have the Stuy diploma when I go to Stuy,” Khan said. “Obviously, my reason is valid […] but that feeling that I don’t get the Stuy diploma while being in Stuy still affects me.” 

Anonymous Sophomore C expressed a similar sentiment, having described how she finds the struggle unfair. “It does matter to me, because I’m spending all my time here taking just the same classes as everybody else,” Sophomore C said. “Just because I can’t take one specific class means that it’s jeopardizing all the things that I'm doing here, and I’m basically doing them for no reason.”

Others, however, said that the Stuyvesant-endorsed diploma is irrelevant to them. Faruqi expressed, “The Stuyvesant diploma is just a sticker on your diploma that says that you listened to Stuyvesant, you took the classes you had to take—that they wanted you to take. There are some subjects that I really don’t like, but I still have to take it anyway, just so I could get a Stuyvesant sticker.” 

As of now, there is high hope for change, primarily due to the highly publicized article written by Opinions writer and junior Sophia Dasser. Having spent her freshman year remote and being exempt from swim gym, the issue did not affect Dasser directly. However, due to the lack of awareness it was receiving, she felt responsible to educate others about the cause. “I would bring it up to my friends, or I would bring it up to teachers, they’d be like, ‘Oh, we had no idea,’” Dasser described. “It’s my responsibility as someone on The Spectator to share that with people. If that’s not what student journalism is all about, then what is? I also thought that, if I was in their shoes, I would want someone to speak out about it.”

Originally, Dasser’s focus was on reaching administrators and teachers. However, her article soon reached a far larger audience than that of Stuyvesant; The New York Times and the New York Post reached out to Dasser. “I knew then that The New York Times was going to reach out to the Department of Education (DOE), and the DOE was going to get back to Stuyvesant about the issue,” Dasser said. “That was probably the most rewarding thing.

For now, however, a solution is still undetermined, as there are legal barriers the school must overcome in order to make religious accommodations. “There is an act within the DOE that says that if students request religious accommodation, they must be given that accommodation. But there is another act that says that you cannot separate physical education classes by gender. So these are two contradicting acts,” Dasser explained. “It’s really up to the DOE and their decision on what is acceptable within Stuyvesant.” 

Though the presence of all-girls swim classes is a complicated and nuanced issue, it is imperative for administrators to recognize the class’ vitality for many Muslim female students. Stuyvesant boasts a diverse community of students, all of whom deserve to feel comfortable within the school. If students are expected to soar above and beyond, it is essential that they receive the proper support and accommodations they need, especially in classes that are unique requirements to Stuyvesant. Until a solution is decided upon, female Muslim students and their allies should stand firm in their beliefs. No one should have to sacrifice the ideals that define their identity simply for the convenience of others—and no one should expect them to do so.