There is a sister I know who is in a confusing situation. A few months back she received surgery on her knee and has been given swimming as physiotherapy. The problem is that although she attends a women-only session, there is a male lifeguard on duty. What should she do?
A woman (and a man) must cover the nakedness (awra) of her body in the presence of non-mahram males and also non-Muslim females, which is her complete body except the face, hands (up to the wrists) and feet (up to the ankles). The rest of the body must be covered in loose and non-transparent clothing.
Therefore, normally it would not be permitted for a Muslim sister to attend swimming sessions where non-mahram males such as male lifeguards or non-Muslim females are present. Even if it is a private “Muslim-women only” swimming session, she will have to take precautions by not wearing tight-fitting clothing such as regular swimming costumes.
With regards to the sister in question who has been prescribed swimming as physiotherapy due to the surgery she received on her knee, the following needs to be considered:
The ruling is that a woman must cover her nakedness unless there is a genuine and valid excuse, such as for medical treatment. The jurists (fuqaha) explain that medical treatment from a male doctor is only permitted when there is a need and no female doctors are reasonably available.
It is stated in al-Fatawa al-Hindiyya:
“If a woman has a wound on a part of the body that is impermissible for a male to look at (i.e. nakedness), it will be impermissible for her to receive treatment from a male doctor, rather a female should be instructed to treat her. If a female expert is not available, neither is there a female who can be instructed to treat her… then it would be permitted for a male doctor to treat her, provided there is a genuine need.” (al-Fatawa al-Hindiyya, 5/330)
Moreover, the jurists tell us that prohibitions and particularly unlawful medication become permissible when no other alternative is reasonably available. In the case of an alternative being available, it would not be permitted to avail of unlawful medication.
Now, you state that the sister attends swimming sessions for a medical purpose and that swimming is the best form of physical medicine for her. However, in light of the above, committing something unlawful (which is exposing one’s nakedness, in this case) only becomes permitted when there is a genuine need and no alternative is available.
Therefore, if she can arrange to swim in a place where no non-mahram males (or non-Muslim females) are present, then she should do that. Mere difficulty in getting back for work or other such matters would not justify exposing one’s nakedness in front of non-mahrams.
If this is not possible, then she should look at other means of therapy. You state that swimming is the best form of therapy; hence it seems that other alternatives are available. Unlawful medication only becomes permitted when no other reasonable alternative is available, thus it would not be allowed to expose one’s nakedness when another alternative is available.
However, if it is not possible at all for the sister to find a all-women swimming place (where no non-mahram males are present), nor is there another alternative for her therapy, in that the experts state swimming is the only realistic form of therapy and other forms of exercise are not that effective, then due to extreme and genuine need she may be allowed to swim there.
And Allah knows best
[Mufti] Muhammad ibn Adam
Leicester , UK