Analysis of “The Women’s Swimming Pool”
In “The Women’s Swimming Pool” by Hanan Al-Shayk, a picture is painted of a girl’s journey to Beirut from her rural town 1982. The political and social ramifications of her world create the frustration and loss inherent in the binds she finds herself in inherited from her family and society.
In this story it is clear that women where the girl is from are quite disadvantaged and held back by their religious beliefs and customs in stark contrast to the bustling city where “bared arms,” “tight pants,” and “girls’ hair,” (1169) color the city of Beirut. At her rural origin, she is restrained to the task of working in the tent “amidst mounds of tobacco” (1166). It is here that her strongest tie and relation is to that of her grandmother, her only family left, who “has welded [the girl] so close to her that the village girls no longer dare to make friends with me” (1167). Her family ties turn into burdens, holding her back from the joys of youth and friendship. In her town, her grandfather was “the celebrated religious scholar” (1167) and yet the grandmother is weaving tobacco, highlighting the inequality found among the sexes, with the women left to the duty of menial labor. Their beliefs ingrained so strongly that even “In this heat [the girl] still had to wear that dress with long sleeves, that head covering over my braids” (1168). No matter the pain it caused, the customs were to be upheld. This pattern is portrayed again as the grandmother is hurting her knees on the pavement in order to answer the Islamic call to prayer, “her knees that knelt on the cruelly hard pavement” revealing “her tattooed hands that lay on the dirt.”(1171) The tattoo matching the one on her chin, a marked woman, almost as if taken by the customs so ingrained in her like the very tattoo it symbolized.
The girl convinces her grandmother to visit the city that is home to her beloved sea. It is here that her “friend Sumayya had sworn that the swimming pool she’d been at had been for women only.” It is clear that the belief systems of the girls people allowed for no intermingling but rather a segregation of the genders as this was not socially, religiously or politically acceptable, as well as the hoops women had to go to in order to enjoy swimming, whereas men could just hop right into the ocean. The consequences“If any man were to see you,” her grandmother exclaims, “you’d be done for, and so would your mother, and father and your grandfather…she was frightened she wouldn’t go to heaven” (1168). There is deeply ingrained shame and “evil” power attributed to the sight of woman’s body, and strict religious consequences for such a sight. This places extreme limitation onto the freedom of women in the girl’s position, as demonstrated by the difficulty in even finding this one certain swimming pool.
When they arrived “it was soon all too evident that we were outsiders to the capital” (1169). The culture of the girl is that of the rural south, not the progressive and liberal beliefs of those in the urban city of Beirut, and as she realizes this she “[cries] inwardly because [she] was born in the south” (1170) where it was more traditional and religious, with not much freedom or opportunity to offer the young girl. “[She] felt how far removed we were from these passers by;” (1171) the alienation and seclusion of tradition is felt deeply by the girl.
Amidst the strain already felt in being in this new and wildly different place, when the girl leads the grandmother to finally go find the pool, it is apparent the lack of awareness of such a thing is to the people of Beirut, highlighting their lack of similar religious practices and concern. When asking just about everyone they saw and passed by where the women’s swimming pool was, “nobody [knew] where it was” (1170). The people of Beirut are on different planes of existence it seems, having no need to know such things as it did not affect their lives personally. Once the girl finds the pool, and shortly after finds her grandmother praying in the streets, she feels like her grandmother was “destroying what lay in my bag,” (1171) spoiling her dream and the sweet freedom the cool waters were to have brought.
The girl’s burden, religious entrapments and upbringing held her back from the sweet, salty spray of opportunity and liberation. All the while the urban sprawl bustles by, unphased and unrelatable.