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Cross Post: Women’s-Only Swimming Hours: Accommodation Is Not Discrimination

Written by Miriam Rosenbaum and Sajda Ouachtouki 

This article was originally published in First Things.

Women’s-only hours at swimming pools are nothing new. Many secular institutions have long hosted separate swim hours for women and girls who, for reasons of faith or personal preference, desire to swim without the presence of men. The list includes Barnard College, Harvard University, Yale University, and swim clubs, JCCs, and YMCAs across the country. Recently, women’s-only swimming hours have become a topic of debate, especially in New York, where promoters of liberal secularist ideology (including the editorial page of the New York Times) are campaigning against women’s-only hours at a public swimming pool on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. They claim that women’s-only swimming hours, even for a small portion of the day, must be abolished in the interest of “general fairness and equal access” and to avoid “discrimination” in favor of certain religions.

This is doubly wrong. First, accommodation is not the same as discrimination. Second, critics emphasize the importance of upholding “public, secular rules” without recognizing that an honorable, fair, and therefore desirable secularity is not one that imposes secularism as an ideology; rather it is one that accommodates on terms of equality the needs of members of the various communities, including faith communities, composing society as a whole.

As two religious women who attend secular universities and work in secular environments, we speak about secularity and diversity from our mutual experience. On Princeton’s campus, where we met as college students in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and as leaders of the Religious Life Interfaith Council, we stood out among our peers both visibly (by the way we dress) and through practice. One of us covered our hair with a hijab, and one of us always wore long sleeves and skirts. We needed and received many religious accommodations that enabled us to be full participants in a diverse college community. We were permitted to leave class early on Fridays to attend prayers; our examinations were rescheduled when they fell on the Sabbath; Kosher and Halal food options were offered at events; and, yes, Princeton offered women’s-only hours at its swimming pool.

If Princeton had not offered women’s-only hours, we would not have been able to swim at college, and we likely would have felt that we were being discriminated against by a policy that accommodated women who were happy to swim in the presence of men, while excluding women like ourselves. We would have resisted any claim that such a policy was “neutral.” After all, we were paying tuition like other students who had full access to the pool. To its credit, Princeton (like Barnard and Harvard) recognized that discrimination can go both ways, and its definition of fairness was based on welcoming students of all faiths and perspectives as full participants in all aspects of collegiate life—including swimming.

During the summer of 2009, students from Princeton’s Religious Life Council traveled to India to explore the interfaith atmosphere there and to meet with various leaders and students. During our trip, we stopped the bus to allow a religious member to recite afternoon prayers before sundown; in the same way, we stopped the bus to allow another member to find a restroom and buy a soda. Both delays were reasonable accommodations to meet people’s legitimate needs. Critics’ fundamental mistake is that they would, we are sure, accept the bathroom stop as legitimate, but not the stop for prayers. By the same token, they would allow separate hours for lap swimmers and children (as that is a “practical” accommodation), but not women’s-only swim hours (as that is “religious segregation”).

Critics are wrong, in any case, to assume that single-sex swimming hours are based always on religious motivation. They insist that it is discriminatory “to tell a sweaty Brooklynite on a Sunday afternoon that he should be ejected onto Bedford Avenue because one religious group doesn’t want him in the pool.” That statement (from a New York Times editorial) overlooks the fact that some women, and men, prefer single-sex swim hours for reasons beyond those of religious mandates; traditional values of modesty and concern with body image have been cited by many people as reasons for desiring single-sex hours at pools. Additionally, research shows that many female victims of sexual assault feel safer in all-female spaces when wearing less clothing than usual, as one ordinarily does when swimming. Institutions that offer separate swim hours, such as universities, JCCs, and YMCAs state that single-sex swim hours are created for, and used by, the general population, and should not be perceived as religious “segregation,” much less “gender discrimination.”

Institutions offering separate swim hours demonstrate that they seek to include in their community people from many different cultures, faiths, and traditions, representing a range of values, beliefs, and experiences. They embrace pluralism rather than impose secularism. A number of pools that have been accused of discrimination, such as the Tukwila Pool Metropolitan Park District, began to offer swim hours for both men and women. Rather than ending “religious segregation” in pools, as critics call for, the example of Tukwila can function as a possible solution for the Bedford Avenue, assuming there is genuine demand for men’s-only hours.

In a year when one of our presidential candidates calls for an immigration ban on Muslims and racism continues to pervade public and private spheres, strong public support for diversity and acceptance is a necessary antidote. As attempts persist to break down the diversity in our communities, we call on readers to counteract these efforts. In this spirit, and in the spirit of “fairness and equal access,” women’s-only hours in community pools should continue to be supported and celebrated.

Miriam Rosenbaum, who holds a B.A. from Princeton University and an M.Sc. from Oxford University, is currently a student at Yale Law School.

Sajda Ouachtouki, who holds a B.A. from Princeton University, is currently pursuing a Master in Public Affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School.


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6 Comment on this post

  1. I can’t say it is something I feel very strongly about, but think the arguments are more complex than you suggest. Clearly, it is reasonable to accommodate something if someone feels strongly about, if it is a) an expression of an acceptable wish (not sexist, racist and so on) and b) not overly burdensome on others. So the bus stopping example meets both criteria. Dedicated exclusive swimming sessions meet criteria b – and the examples of other groups that are accommodated show this. But I think it is slightly more controversial as to whether the swimming example meets criteria a). Men might feel that the reason is sexist because it implies that men are all or largely viewing all women lasciviously and are not able to act in a civilised way around them in non-sexual contexts, and women might feel it is sexist as it implies that women’s bodies are always sexual objects in a way that men’s aren’t, even when they are just exercising them in practical attire.

    As for accommodating those that have suffered assault, although this is understandable, this is not something that we typically do more broadly, for example, although fireworks might trigger PTSD in those who have endured warzones, we do not prevent their use by the rest of society during celebrations. The usual response is instead to try to help people who have suffered trauma to overcome the on going effects rather than to change the reasonable activities of others in society and it is not clear why this case should be different if you have not already decided that such sessions are a good thing.

  2. This post is unfortunately written for an American audience, and limited to US examples, although this is a live issue in western Europe as well. That’s not perhaps the fault of the authors, since they wrote for a US publication anyway. Nevertheless, if they had considered European attitudes, they might have written a better and more comprehensive article. The issue can not be reduced, as the authors suggest, to religious accommodation.

    The continuing controversy about transgender access to toilets (‘bathrooms’ and ‘restrooms’ as they say in the US) is a highly relevant comparison. In this case we see feminists campaigning to retain separate women’s facilities, and at the same time police access to those separate facilities (no transgenders in the women’s toilet). Some US institutions, and now some institutions and local governments in Europe, have reacted to the controversy by enforcing single-gender toilets. This in turn infuriates the right, both men and women, because they see themselves being deprived of a standard facility in the name of political correctness.

    We also need to take into account instances where swimming pools have banned Islamic swimming clothing, usually improvised. In theory that is not a ban on persons, but in practice it excludes religious Moslim women. There are also a few cases of Muslim asylum seekers (in practice all men) being banned from mixed swimming pools, because of real or perceived threat of sexual harassment of other users.

    So the issue has many layers, few of which are considered by the authors of the original post. In the end, it is probably resolvable to general principles of community and segregation, but segregation is a highly emotional issue.

  3. A leisure park in France plans a ‘burkini day’, in practice for moslim women, although they can’t say that explicitly. It’s worth looking at the reactions on social media, to understand why people get so angry about this – just google “burkini day”, or try the comments section of tabloid reports on the event. People feel that their country is being taken away from them, that it is a surrender to Islam, that the government has a policy of appeasement, and so on.

    We can’t simply pretend that these reactions don’t exist. There are comparable reactions on related issues as well – on halal food for instance. What some people see as simple provision, serving halal food in public institutions or a women-only hour at swimming pools, other see as an act of war. The state can not pretend that this section of the population does not exist. Western European states have for years tried to ignore such reactions, but the evidence suggests that the long-term result is a backlash. The referendum on Britain’s EU membership was a reminder, that ignoring populist anger won’t make it disappear.

    In this case, certainly, understanding the issues requires an understanding of the outrage.

  4. It is sometimes difficult to unravel the logic in such cases, but I think the core problem is that one group gets an ‘accommodation’ while the other does not. That inequality seems to drive the outrage and resentment.

    In the case of the swimming pool with a women-only hour we can put it like this: equal treatment would require two swimming pools, one with such an accommodation, and the other without. Now we also need to take account of the emotional reactions, which may not be stated explicitly. In this case we can guess that those who object to the ‘accommodation’ don’t like Islam, and don’t like moslim immigration. What would really make them happy? Probably, a moslim-free swimming pool.

    Moralising about ‘tolerance’ won’t resolve this issue. The fact is that some groups don’t like other groups, and therefore don’t want to make any accommodation for them. When the state, or other third parties, make an accommodation or concession, these people feel disadvantaged. And indeed they have been disadvantaged in formal terms, since they are not offered any accommodation or concession. What the state could do, is to keep building swimming pools for various groups, until no-one feels that they have been unfairly treated. One pool for gays, one for homophobes, one for moslims, one for opponents of Islam, one for Catholics, one for Protestants, one for socialists, one for entrepreneurs, one for transgenders, one for radical feminists, and so on. The fact that the state does not have infinite resources, is not an argument against such an approach. It’s the principle that counts, namely that the state should not leave sections of the population with the feeling that they have been discriminated against.

  5. I have been trying to make the same argument for ages, to no avail. You see, apart from being an academic, I am also a top national athlete with muscle mass and body fat, respectively, far above and far below those of the average person. Hence I have been trying to introduce a “good looking people only swimming day”. It is not that I am discriminating against anybody. Rather, as you say, I am merely accommodating for the needs of people who value the aesthetics of the human form and do not wish to suffer the disgust of visual rape that fat, obese, and generally unattractive people impose onto us. If anything, I see this as a clearer cut case – the appreciation of human beauty surely far predates organized religion, let alone some new kid on the block with merely some 14 centuries under its belt (not to speak of its even more modern interpretations).

  6. Since this article was fist published in June, there have been several incidents which illustrate the issues. The latest is the so-called Burkini ban in France, which is in some ways a mirror of the swimming pool issues. Rather than seeking a private ‘safe space’ for their values, Muslim women go to a public beach, and take their values with them. That too leads to controversy.

    Rather than comment further here, on an already dated article, I suggest that Practical Ethics invites someone to look at the ethical issues involved in the Burkini ban, which are quite complex.

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