August 3, 2023
Zeyad Ramadan swimming

By Siraj Bajwa

On a normal day, before a typical swim meet, competitive swimmer Zeyad Ramadan makes a decision that would end up changing his life forever. 

He decides to wear activewear under his swim jammer. 

“That’s against competition rules,” states the meet official, referring to Ramadan’s altered swimsuit. 

“I’m observing my faith,” Ramadan replies, invoking the concept of the Muslim man’s awra, or the parts of the body that should be covered.  

“OK, you have to write an appeal.” 

This response confused Ramadan. Why would he have to prove that his modest attire came from the sincere observation of his faith and not an attempt to get a competitive edge, especially when he felt the added coverage could actually put him at a disadvantage?

He was presented with an impossible dilemma: Should he choose to adhere to his sincerely held religious beliefs or continue to follow his passion for competitive swimming? 


The buzzer rings, signifying the start of the swim meet. A young Ramadan, age six, stands at the edge of the pool, frozen in confusion. His mother had recently signed him up for swimming lessons and now, here he was, participating in his first-ever competition. Ramadan’s mother realizes that her son needs a light push.  

And that’s exactly what she does, thrusting her son into the pool and into the world of competitive swimming. 


Although Ramadan spent his childhood in Saudi Arabia, he was born in Egypt and identifies as Egyptian. In 2002, he moved to the United States and attended boarding school in New Hampshire for the last three years of high school. 

“I came to the U.S. in a post 9/11 climate … I was one of eight Muslims on campus. For all intents and purposes, I could have been the Mufti of Saudi Arabia.” 

For Ramadan, high school posed a crucial question: “Do I try and fit in, hide? Or do I proudly proclaim, ‘I’m a Muslim?’”  

He became the president of the school’s Muslim Student Association, giving khutbahs (religious sermons) and leading the Friday prayer on the top floor of his school’s chapel. His first year fasting for Ramadan on campus forced him to speak up and ask for pre-packaged meals he could eat for suhoor (pre-dawn meal) in his dorm room—which would not be his last religious accommodation request.  

While he initially felt like a burden when asking his school for support to practice fundamental parts of his religion, Ramadan ultimately answered his high school question with an unapologetic declaration of his faith. 

“We are, each and every one of us, a representative of Islam and we are callers to Islam.” 


During his junior year of high school, Ramadan realized that he did not see himself having a future in swimming. He was not being recruited and found that he lacked key experiences shared by his teammates, such as attending swim camps. After experiencing burnout and finding college admissions to be a top priority, Zeyad Ramadan gave up swimming—a break that would last 17 years. 

He attended the University of Southern California for his undergraduate education, where his dorm was across the street from the local mosque, closer than the nearest one to his family’s home in Saudi Arabia. Immediate access to a vibrant and thriving Muslim community on and off campus became formative for Ramadan. No longer being a khateeb (religious lecturer) by necessity, no longer feeling like a burden, Ramadan was able to focus on actively learning about his religion and began to feel he was part of a community instead of being on his own. 

“We are, each and every one of us, a representative of Islam and we are callers to Islam.” 

Zeyad Ramadan

After finishing college and getting married, Ramadan found that he had set aside his health and had gained almost 100 pounds above his personal ideal weight. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he realized that the lockdown could give him the space he needed to take care of his body again.

“One of the only facilities that was open was the beach, and I was like ‘You know what … I can’t say that I’m from California, and I’m a true authentic Californian, until I’ve attempted surfing.” 

So, Ramadan bought a surfboard, ordered a wetsuit, and dove back into the water he had abandoned for nearly two decades. 


The ocean led Ramadan back to the pool. Soon after he began surfing, he looked into a few local swim teams before deciding to join the Nadadores. 

“I had a ton of weight I wanted to lose. It was the right opportunity at the right time and being in a very supportive environment. Swimming with people that were my dad’s and mom’s age and [having them] kick my butt just really put me to shame. I thought, ‘I need to raise my standards for myself.’”  

Ramadan started at the lowest level of mastery in swimming, C, but after consistently returning to the pool, where he was surrounded by Olympic swimmers, and discovering the positive mental effects of swimming, he worked his way up to the A level and achieved his weight goals. 

“The mental performance side of swimming is being able to persevere through a challenging set, knowing what to do with my mind, and demanding the most out of myself around other great swimmers.” 

His confidence was bolstered by the realization that “in my 30s, I’m swimming faster than I was as a teenager.” 


Ramadan’s journey to altering his swimsuit began with his wife.  

“My wife basically brought up the topic like, ‘Hey, your swimsuit’s not legit.’ There was a struggle for me personally because a big part of swimming or athletics in general is the camaraderie and now, you’re asking me to stand out? The first feeling was just, ‘I don’t know if I could do that.’” 

Ramadan’s concerns that modest swimwear would separate him from his team and put him at a disadvantage during competitions initially sealed off the possibility of changing his suit.  

And then his daughter began wearing the hijab.  

Witnessing his daughter observe the Islamic guidelines for modesty changed everything for Ramadan. His mother, sister, and wife had all donned the veil, but when his own child did, he was forced to come to terms with his own beliefs. 

“I think being able to connect my daughter, that this is the world that she’s stepping into, I need to set a better example. That got me thinking of different solutions.” 

So, Zeyad Ramadan, the Egyptian-American Muslim competitive swimmer, added activewear under his typical jammer—a change visually small yet immense in spiritual decision.  

“When I first started to wear it, my teammates were like, ‘Oh, like, is that a back brace?’ and then I think just being able to speak up and say, ‘Well, no, this is my hijab as a man.” 

Ramadan reconciled his initial worry of feeling othered from his team. “To be a part of something doesn’t mean that we have to all look the same way.” 


When the swim meet officer asked Ramadan for an appeal, he immediately thought of CAIR. He knew of similar situations in which CAIR had helped athletes with religious accommodations, such as a high school student who didn’t want to choose between her desire to play basketball and her decision to wear the hijab.  

He reached out and was aided by CAIR-LA’s Senior Civil Rights Managing Attorney, Amr Shabaik, who drafted the letter asking for Ramadan’s religious accommodation.  

Shabaik stated, “Definitely hats off to Zeyad for taking action without knowing what the response was going to be from his coach or from the meet organizers or swimming organizers. It’s inspiring when community members stand up for their sincerely held religious beliefs, for their identity and who they are, and be able to have the courage to make those requests. And for them to reach out to organizations like CAIR when they need assistance, which also takes time and effort— it’s a process.”  

“We’ve seen similar cases where Muslim women will wear their hijab and long sleeves and long pants while playing competitive basketball or doing other sports. It’s inspiring to see someone who is willing to stand up for who they are, for what they believe in, and just be able to engage in everyday things that they enjoy, such as competitive sports.” 

Shabaik also spoke to the role of CAIR in situations like Ramadan’s: “Having an organization like CAIR step in and assist an individual can help their employer or school recognize, ‘Okay, this isn’t just this individual employee or student asking for this. There’s a whole organization in the community.’” 

He also received the stamp of approval from the Senior Religious Director at the Islamic Center of Irvine, Sh. Mustafa Umar, to prove that the accommodations Ramadan sought were genuinely a part of Islam. 

Ramadan explained, “The beauty of Islam is that it governs every single aspect of our life, from modesty in terms of, the idea of lowering our gaze, how we engage respectfully with the opposite gender, and how we engage with each other.” 


Ramadan hopes that more Muslims realize that they don’t have to leave what they love to practice their faith. “For many people, they discover their passion when they are young, before they are cognizant of the dos and don’ts of our deen (faith) and it becomes a challenge because you feel like you have to sacrifice something you love, for something else that you love, right? And for many people, it becomes a fitna, a trial for them. Whether it’s someone struggling with putting on the hijab, or someone wearing a modified swimsuit, or someone in a professional setting where there’s people drinking, and you feel like ‘I have to compromise in order to get ahead or do well’… At the end of the day, there is submission. You have to put your ego down.” 

“We don’t have to sacrifice. 99% of things in our deen are, by default, permissible. The beauty is that there are governing principles that guide us. For me, I think making this adjustment has allowed for a deeper integration of my faith and something that I really love to do, which is pushing myself and swimming and just being in the water. I mean, I’m from Alexandria, Egypt, so [swimming] is just being in my element.” 

“We need to speak up. We’re not a burden. We won’t have to compromise. We can excel, and there are people that are rooting for us to succeed, and they form that connection with us, they want to help us. JazakumAllah Khayr (May Allah reward you with goodness) to organizations like CAIR. It’s important to support organizations like CAIR, because they, at the end of the day, are advocating for us and our rights. It’s knowing someone’s in your corner; ‘I don’t have to do this by myself.’” 


“It’s important to support organizations like CAIR, because they, at the end of the day, are advocating for us and our rights. It’s knowing someone’s in your corner; ‘I don’t have to do this by myself.’” 

Zeyad Ramadan

On a blistering hot summer day, perfect for swimming, Zeyad Ramadan, Egyptian-American, competitive swimmer, father, husband, teammate, and Muslim, emerges in his activewear and jammer, ready for practice. He stands beside his teammates, appearing different yet accepted and valued, part of the team.  

They all enter the pool, readying themselves. 

They launch like rockets into their hour-long practice. 

And this time, Ramadan needs no push. 

If you need help requesting a religious accommodation, please contact CAIR-LA’s Civil Rights team by filling out this form or by calling (714) 776-1177 (#2)

Siraj Bajwa is a Communications Intern at CAIR-LA. He is a second-year Literary Journalism major at the University of California, Irvine. In his free time, he enjoys writing, reading, taking walks in nature, reflecting on the Quran, and spending time with his family.