On 'Burkini Island' Muslim Girls Can Finally Learn to Swim

Full-length swimsuits and lessons allow schoolgirls in Zanzibar to learn aquatic safety and experience being in the ocean.

In Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania, daily life centres around the sea, yet the vast majority of Zanzibari girls never learn to swim. An estimated 98% of the population is Muslim. Conservative Islamic culture and the absence of modest swimwear has forbidden girls from swimming. Until the Panje Project, that is.

“Panje” is a Swahili word that translates roughly to “big fish.” For the past few years, the Panje Project has made it possible for local women and girls to get into the water, not only teaching them swimming skills but aquatic safety and drowning prevention techniques. The group has empowered its students to teach others, creating a sustainable cycle. And has also provided them with burkinis, full-length swimsuits, so they can get into the water without compromising their cultural and religious beliefs.

Photographer Anna Boyiazis was captivated by this initiative for a number of reasons. Growing up, her love of the water earned her the nickname “psaroukla,” a Greek word meaning none other than “big fish.”

But it wasn’t only the coincidence of this nomenclature that drew Boyiazis to the story. The mission of the Panje Project intersected her interests around human rights, public health, and women and girls’ issues.

Swim instructor Kazija, 22, teaches Kijini Primary School students how to float in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANNA BOYIAZIS

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANNA BOYIAZIS

Swim instructor Siti, 24, helps a girl float in the Indian Ocean off of Nungwi, Zanzibar.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANNA BOYIAZIS

Kijini Primary School students walk to shore after their lesson in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANNA BOYIAZIS

Swim instructors Chema (left), 17, and Siti (right), 24, rest in Kazija's living room in Nungwi, Zanzibar. They wear rashguards under their abayas and carry wetsuits in backpacks when going to teach.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANNA BOYIAZIS

Kazija teaches girls how to kick their legs in the water in Mnyuni, Zanzibar.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANNA BOYIAZIS

Swim instructor Mwanaidi, 24, rides in the back of a pick-up truck to Nungwi, Zanzibar. The instructors travel to and from the lessons in the back of pick-up trucks and in school buses filled to the brim with children.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANNA BOYIAZIS

Kijini Primary School students are introduced to the water in Mnyuni, Zanzibar. The students were encouraged to sing songs while swimming through the water in train formation.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANNA BOYIAZIS

Students rest on shore after their lesson in Kendwa, Zanzibar.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANNA BOYIAZIS

Mwanaidi teaches Kijini Primary School students how to float on in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANNA BOYIAZIS

Burkini tops hang on a clothesline in Nungwi, Zanzibar outside the home of Kazija’s mother.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANNA BOYIAZIS

Chema snaps her fingers as she disappears underwater in Nungwi, Zanzibar.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANNA BOYIAZIS

The rate of drowning on the African continent is the highest in the world. Still, in Zanzibar, Boyiazis says many community members have yet to warm up to the idea of women learning to swim. The introduction of the burkini is finally allowing women to enter the water. “In Zanzibar, the burkini is saving lives,” she says.

The swimming lessons also challenge a patriarchal system that discourages women from pursuing things other than domestic tasks. It is precisely this tension of the freedom one feels in, and under, the water juxtaposed with the limitations imposed upon Zanzibari women that is at the heart of Boyiazis’s series, “Burkini Island.”

Gaining access to this story wasn’t easy. Emailing the Panje Project from afar to explain her photographic intentions was to no avail. Then, at an annual photography festival in Perpignan, France, she heard photographer Brent Stirton say, “21 days trapped…don’t let the waiting get to your head.” Meaning, if you’re stuck waiting for access for a really long time, remain calm, focused and persistent. Heartened, Boyiazis bought a ticket to Zanzibar from Perpignan, and then did just that –– remained calm, focused and persistent.

After she introduced herself in person, the NGO began a month-long process of reaching out to the community—elders, parents, leaders—to make sure they were comfortable with the girls being photographed.

When permission was granted, Boyiazis spent the next week alongside the women in the water without a camera, the next two weeks photographing, and lastly, two weeks teaching the swim instructors English between lessons. In spite of trying, she was never able to find someone who could translate from English to Swahili, the national language. Boyiazis was left with the impression that the women genuinely loved being in the water, though. When not teaching swim lessons, the instructors spent their afternoons swimming, she observed.

One image, which happens to be a favourite of Boyiazis’s, pictures four girls floating on their backs in the turquoise sea. They’re holding red-capped plastic containers to their chests for extra buoyancy and their yellow burkinis fan slightly from their bodies. With relaxed faces and closed eyes, the young women appear the very embodiment of freedom as the water cradles them with silence and peace.

“It would have been torture for me as a woman to grow up in Zanzibar and not be allowed to swim,” she says. “This project was the definite merging of two of my favourite worlds, being in the water and taking pictures.”

Students line up on shore after learning to swim and perform rescues in Mnyuni, Zanzibar.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANNA BOYIAZIS

Header Image: A young woman learns to float in the Indian Ocean off of Nungwi, Zanzibar. PHOTOGRAPH BY ANNA BOYIAZIS

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