Nahla Mahmoud grew up in Sudan and always wanted to swim in the river Nile, but due to cultural and societal restrictions was not able to fulfil that dream. Now, as a Scotland-based activist and ambassador for Bloody Good Period, a charity that fights for menstrual equity, she has not only learnt to swim as an adult but is working to inspire more women to embrace swimming.
She’ll be taking on the Women Only One Mile Wave at Swim Serpentine on Saturday 16 September, raising awareness and money for Bloody Good Period.
You are an ambassador for Bloody Good Period – how do you think periods affect our relationship with swimming?
They affect us on many levels! Physically, we need to think about managing the pain, cramps and knowing our energy levels. Emotionally, understanding how we feel and how different triggers/environments influence our emotions. Logistically, as we need to think about water resistant products and dignified places to change and finally psychologically, which is mostly related to leak panics, judgement and other cultural stigmas.
Swimming while menstruating is doable, enjoyable and there are options. There is, however, work to be done on making the information and options more accessible as well as dignifying the settings in which periods are managed and discussed. All which BGP is doing a brilliant job on.
Periods remain something that stop a lot of people from going swimming. Do you have any advice to help people get over the stigma of swimming whilst bleeding?
Firstly, I would say: listen to your body and find what works for you. That also includes food, nutrition, and supplements. I eat more fruits and up my vitamin C intake during my period. It seems to help. But yes, create your own personalised plan.
Secondly, find a menstrual product that makes you feel safe. The mensural cup is brilliant, and I am a big advocate for it. Some tampons are also options for shorter swims or sea dips, less than 20mins.
Third, wear swimwear that makes you feel comfortable. This is not just for swimming while on period, but also in general. I wear long, black-coloured, swimming shorts for men for my regular open water swims and during my period. They are more secure and give me a bit of extra protection (against cold water and jelly fish). There are a real lack of options in the market for women’s swimwear.
Finally, go with a buddy or join a women/LGBTQ+ friendly group. It’s more fun and always nice to swim in a supportive environment.
You often free-bleed when diving or swimming, which is something many people with periods worry about. Can you explain what free-bleeding is like and why you find it supports your lifestyle and hobbies?
Free-bleeding is bleeding naturally without wearing a menstrual product in the outdoors. I think one of the strongest manifestations of the period stigma is the leak panic. When I wild swim or dive, I am surrounded by amazing nature and huge amounts of water. It makes everything else insignificant. There’s no reason to wear anything for a few spoons of liquid which will organically dissolve into the wild. It’s an amazing feeling and very liberating!
I would say though, for this to become an accessible option we need to challenge the taboo around periods being “dirty”.
What was the experience of learning to swim in your adulthood like? And how did it feel the first time you were able to swim in a river like you’d always hoped to?
Swimming is an amazing activity, and I can’t talk enough about how enjoyable it is let alone its physical and mental benefits. I loved learning to swim as an adult. It made me more comfortable and confident with my body and movement.
While I swim regularly in seas and lakes now, I am yet to swim in a river! From the restrictions in Sudan to the polluted rivers in the UK, it saddens me that it is a battle to safely swim in rivers everywhere. It’s great to see a strong movement fighting to claim back our rivers and hold councils and private companies accountable. Equally, it was great to see a female swimmer representing Sudan on the Rio Olympics after a 30-year gap. Despite the current war in Sudan, grassroot organisations including women rights orgs are doing an inspiring job in keeping the fight going.
I am still very much looking to swim the Nile, and in the meantime, I am grateful to have access to lovely healthy wild swimming spots up here in Scotland.
Why is open water swimming so important to you now and what inspired you to take on Swim Serpentine?
There is something special in swimming in the wild. Encountering fellow beings and sharing the space peacefully…or learning a lot from the non-peaceful moments! Its magical and humbling!
London was home for years before I moved up north. It makes me happy to come back and swim there. Also, swimming for the amazing Bloody Good Period, who are doing truly amazing work in tackling period poverty and ensuring relevant information and menstrual products are accessible to those who can’t access them otherwise.
In the UK, what do you think needs to be done to support more people from marginalised and minority communities to feel confident in the water?
Representation – our publicly funded swim venues and staff are not diverse enough. They automatically send the message ‘this is not for people who look like you’. Councils could seek diverse swim role models where possible and fund initiatives encouraging minority groups specifically to swim. Also swim teachers are in demand in general. Encourage teachers from ethnic minority backgrounds through paid schemes (with training plus a job offer).
Accessibility – a lot of adults who can’t swim are migrants and people with support needs...
Provide holistic support, not just the teaching of the skill. Create partnerships with migrant support services/ mental health support services/ homelessness support services to name a few.
Challenge immigration restrictions which limit asylum seekers’ ability to access public spaces. This is an investment in our communities physical and mental wellbeing. And more importantly, an investment in our humanity and civil values.