Dive into the empowering story of broadcaster Summaya Mughal this International Women’s Day, themed ‘Inspiring Inclusion.’ From the University of York to making waves as a BBC Nottingham radio host, she’s also behind the game-changing podcast, ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’. Join Alumni Voices for a journey that breaks barriers and celebrates inclusion.

“I never planned that I’d ever be a radio presenter; I’d never been in a radio studio before. I won a competition when I moved back to Nottingham, which is where I’m from. It was a bit like X Factor for the BBC and that’s how I landed my current job. I’d always wanted to be a journalist. I was interested in presenting but I had graduate offers with Deloitte and HSBC, which I rejected when I graduated from York. I moved back home and then just happened to win this competition. It was a bit of a beautiful accident.

186 people auditioned and if you won, then you got your own evening show on BBC Radio Nottingham Monday to Friday 7-10 pm. After five rounds I won! For the audition I had to tell a 60 second story to four judges who all had buzzers – true X factor style. My story was actually about an incident that happened when I was at the University of York. 

I did cheer when I was at York – I loved cheering for the York Hornets. I was a flyer; I’m 5 foot  so where else would you put me? Again, cheer wasn’t something that I’d ever done before. I went to the taster session more because I was like, ‘Lol cheerleading. What is this?’ And then I saw the stunts that they were throwing and I was like, ‘Wow, this is actually quite dangerous and kind of cool.’ Competing with York Hornets level three co-ed and winning gold at the National Cheerleading Awards is one of my fondest memories from York. I was terrible at jumping so they would always put me at the back but I was good at flying. One of my best but most horrific memories was also a cheer related memory and it was the story that I told when I got my job at the BBC.

Listen to Summaya’s story from the University of York that landed(!) her job at the BBC

In 2017 I graduated from York and had a job at Deloitte and HSBC lined up because I did loads of internships in my summers. I went to the University of York as I was interested in Economics and International Relations because the acting and creative sectors are so difficult to get into; I wanted to go to University so I’d have something else I could fall back on.  When I graduated I was running the Investment Finance Society where I was the Alumni Relations Officer. I did York Community Consulting, Drama Soc and Hornets because I wanted to see if there was anything else that I would enjoy as much as presenting and acting – there wasn’t. 

I remember I’d handed in my dissertation and was down by the river near York Picture House, writing in my journal trying to decide if I should accept a graduate scheme in Jersey and become a chartered accountant. There was just this instinctual thing inside me that was like, ‘Don’t do it.’  It was really scary to do because it’s so hard to get into those companies and I had other peers that were dying to get graduate programmes and here I was with multiple, but it just didn’t feel right. I trusted my gut and I rejected it. Thank God because then within a year, I’d won the competition for BBC Radio Nottingham but it didn’t happen overnight.

“In my whole heart I was like, ‘It’s York or nowhere guys!’”

I spent a lot of time trying to work out what I was going to do with my life. Moving back home, you can feel like a bit of a failure, working in a job that I could have done when I was 16 years old – in retail or coffee shops.  I was just like, ‘Why have I gone and done a degree? I’m doing the same job that I could have done before I went to York.’ But everything happens for a reason and it was just around the corner.

Even though I don’t do a job that is directly related to Politics with International Relations, doing all of those different things at university means you can put anyone in front of me and I’ll be fine interviewing them. I think that’s really valuable. Whether it’s Michael Palin or Katie Piper (I just interviewed both of them today) I feel comfortable because I did Politics and International Relations, I also did a year abroad (Erasmus Exchange) studying in Germany, I was also doing Drama Soc and Investment Finance Society and York Community Consulting and all the rest of it. I think that it’s really valuable to have three or four years of your life concentrated on being within a community that allows you to try anything, and also have access to different people that can do different skills. I think that’s very rare and very valuable. It’s definitely made me a better broadcaster, because I feel confident to be able to speak to anybody and interview anybody about anything. I think the university both on the academic and recreational side, set the foundation for that really well. Whenever I go back I describe York as my happy place.

I think post-uni depression is definitely a thing. You’ve gone from being with all of your mates and the charm of being at university. The thing is, you’re only going to stay in contact with a handful of friends. I can count on one hand how many mates I’ve actually stayed in touch with since I graduated but despite that, it’s that thing of going from loads people around you at all time and exciting stuff happening to then feeling like, ‘Oh, okay, I don’t have that energy and that environment around me anymore. I think the thing that institutions and universities offer that you perhaps miss when you move into adult life is that community of people that are all driven to want to achieve something. They may still be working it out, but you’ll be able to find a community that’s interested in stuff you’re interested in and only when you become an adult do you realise that actually it can be hard to find those types of societies that you have in numbers at universities. I remember going through a bit of a phase of feeling a massive low after university, but I know that’s normal and happens a lot.

I would advise graduates that it’s okay to not necessarily know what you’re going to do next. I was quite fortunate because I had jobs lined up but for anyone who doesn’t and is just trying to concentrate on doing their dissertation, it can feel quite overwhelming. Taking a little bit of time out – even though it was hard – was the best thing.’

Listen to the audio clip to hear about Summaya’s determination to go to the University of York.

In 2022 Summaya launched her debut podcast, ‘’Brown Gal Can’t Swim’’, where she explores why many South Asian women are less likely to swim than white communities. The five-part series breaks down misconceptions around swimming and examines the reasons why cultural barriers may stop certain cultural groups from learning to swim during childhood.

“I was doing an interview with the first black female swimmer to compete in the Olympic Games, Alice Dearing. She was talking about some of the challenges that the black community might face when swimming like having swim caps that are big enough for their hair. My best friends are both British Jamaican, I’ve grown up with them my whole life, and had no idea that was something they would have to consider. I felt really ignorant. I was thinking about my own community as a British Pakistani Muslim woman; what are the things that I haven’t even thought of that nobody’s talking about within the South Asian community? Because the black community were doing great, they had this Olympian and they’ve got organisations – they’re really rallying to raise the conversation. I just couldn’t see the same conversation happening within the South Asian community but I suspected there would be perceived barriers that would stop my community from swimming but I just couldn’t see anybody talking about them.

I couldn’t swim and I felt really embarrassed about the fact that I couldn’t swim. Nobody knew that I couldn’t swim. During university I did an Erasmus year abroad in Konstanz on the Swiss German border. It’s got a beautiful lake and I spent the whole time there being around my university mates that were  swimming in the lake and doing all these cool watersports, and I couldn’t swim.  I just thought, ‘Let me just put it out there on my Instagram and see if there’s other people that can’t swim.’ I had so many messages back, not just from people like me, people from all demographics and I felt like nobody was talking about it. 

I reached out to Olympic medalist Becky Adlington for help. I didn’t know Becky beforehand, I just sent her an email but she’s from Mansfield, just down the road from Nottingham so I thought she might come through for me and she did! She and Alice Dearing set me a challenge; to learn to swim in eight weeks and attempt a 500 metre open water challenge. 

The podcast was about me learning but it was also about me unpacking and investigating how much of an issue this was and raising the conversation. It snowballed into something that I didn’t ever expect. It was crazy how it took off, but I guess it just showed that there was a conversation that needed to be had, there were people that were feeling this way and I think that’s why the podcast has done so well. Whether you’re a brown girl like me, and you can relate to it, or you’re a white girl, and you’re just interested in the challenges or the reasons why communities might not swim, I think it’s hit a lot of different audiences and that’s why it’s done so well. 

Islam promotes modesty, but Islam also promotes swimming. There’s four sports that are promoted within the faith: archery, horse riding, wrestling and swimming. The reason for that is because they’re all seen as life saving sports. If you have to go into battle then you’ll know how to do archery. Swimming especially, is seen as a sunnah – where you get good vibes from God. I talked to an Islamic scholar about this in the podcast because after realising that swimming was something that is promoted in Islam. It was a really interesting kind of dichotomy between being something that our faith is telling us we should be doing as Muslims but when we put that into the context of reality in Britain it wasn’t aligning.  

Another factor, speaking as someone who is second generation Pakistani, is our parents’ culture prioritised education over learning skills like swimming when they were younger. My dad was born in Pakistan. When he came to the UK, education was the most important thing. it wasn’t learning to swim.  He’s thinking about putting food on the table and training to become a doctor. When it comes to priorities, swimming wasn’t up there and physical education isn’t up there as part of the curriculum in Pakistan, at least for my father’s generation. It’s changed a little bit now but it’s not compulsory like it is in the UK. If you don’t pick it up in school, like a lot of kids, then the onus falls on your parents and if your parents don’t have the means or it’s not a priority then they’re not going to teach you.

One of the most stressful things about learning to swim for me was what to wear. It’s not from a place of vanity; it’s from a place of cultural expectations. In Islam modesty is important and modesty is one of those words where you and I might have a completely different understanding of what’s modest. In Islam, you’re encouraged to dress modestly, but that’s going to mean something different to different people. For me, I’ve worn a normal swimming costume before with my arms and legs out in front of my mates and I’ve been fine with it. But that’s not something that I would ever wear in front of my dad. I suppose for me the thing with the podcast was those two worlds of Pakistani Summaya and University of York Summaya coming together for the first time. That sort of thing also applies not just to learning to swim and the clothes you wear, but relationships and career choices. There’s an expectation from your community, perhaps around how you should behave, which can be different to what you want to do with your life because you were born and bred here in Britain. That’s what became very apparent with ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’ where something as simple as what I should wear became incredibly stressful because I was wearing a normal swimming costume, but I knew I would probably be a bit conscious to go on the TV wearing something like that.

I also knew there might be people from the Islamic community that might not feel like this was a podcast for them or that I was even Muslim because that’s not how they would dress. Now, I’ve really got to caveat that and say there are other Muslim women that dress like me, so I’m not speaking for all Muslim women. There are Muslim and Pakistani women that can swim, so the decision about what I should wear was naturally going to then inform what I would be representing. That was really hard. I had a real dilemma of identity, where I thought I could wear the more covered up costume, which isn’t what I’d normally wear, but I know that it will resonate with that community or anyone that wants to be a bit more confident when they go swimming because I don’t think it’s just Muslim women that always want to cover up. Or I could wear a normal swimming costume that’s more me, but maybe it’s not going to have the impact that I want it to have.  I had to take myself out of it and realise that ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’ became so much bigger than just me and my story; it became more of a conversation around  how do we get people to learn a skill that can essentially save your life in the most accommodating way possible and is wearing a swimming  costume honestly something that’s stopping you from learning a skill that could save your life? If so, that’s a huge problem. 

The other thing Islamically is women may feel more comfortable learning to swim in a female only setting so there is something called free-mixing in Islam where you’re encouraged to be in same sex spaces in something like swimming as much as possible so that everybody feels comfortable. 

In the second episode of the podcast, I have that conversation with my dad and my brother who are more conservative than me. It was scary to do because they are the most important people in my life. I was putting them and myself on a platform to be criticised but actually it was really well received, thankfully, which was a massive relief.  We became closer as well because I’ve never spoken to them about how I felt about being Muslim; it was like those two worlds that I’d kept so far apart were coming together for the first time. That was really scary because it was very public via the BBC. It’s so much deeper than just me learning to swim; it also became a story of who I am and my identity.

It’s not just women as well – my dad couldn’t swim, which is one of the reasons as to why I didn’t learn to swim. One of my missions was to  get him swimming and get him in the pool. One of the first things he asked me was whether he could wear a t-shirt. I said as long as he didn’t wear a fleece he’d be fine! I think there’s a balance of wearing something a little bit more covered up as long as it’s safe. That’s the most important thing. Obviously it has to be safe if you’re learning to swim and all the rest of it is something that resonates both with men and with women.

A few swimwear brands have reached out to me because they wanted to get a bit of advice in terms of what they could do to make their swimwear more inclusive, which is great. That just goes to show that perceived barriers, like clothing, don’t need to be a barrier because there are brands that see a potential target market that they could tap into. 

My swim teacher told me about a few examples of people that had learnt to swim after having seen ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’. I get so many messages on social media from people that now feel inspired to learn. There’s one guy who told me about his mum, who’s in her 70s. He sends me regular updates of her learning to swim journey. People have definitely decided to take up swimming after ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’ which is amazing. Even if just one person took up swimming, I’d be happy. 

Beyond that it’s raised a massive conversation. I work with the Royal Lifesaving Society and spoke at their conference to raise awareness and how we can increase diversity within lifeguarding because if you don’t have people learning to swim, they’re not going to want to gain other skills like teaching or lifeguarding. 

I flew to Latvia in November to speak at the European Aquatic Conference, about what countries can do on a global scale when it comes to ensuring that people learn the skill because I think there’s a lot of focus on kids swimming, and that’s amazing, but the thing that was different about ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’ was that perhaps there’s not so much of a conversation about adults learning to swim. They’re interested in what the process was like for me, what worked and potentially what they can take away and then implement in their various countries.

In the future I’ll probably stay within aquatics and continue working as a broadcaster for the BBC but move more into television. And now I can swim, I’m determined to go back to Konstanz in Germany and swim in the lake there.”

Listen to Summaya’s advice on how to start your own podcast

Follow Summaya on social media via @summayamughal on Instagram and @SummayaMughal on Twitter 

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