Recently a Brooklyn, New York City public swimming pool was the center of controversy after a complaint was made to the Commission on Human Rights about the pool having women-only swimming four times a week. The complainant pointed out that it broke the law.
After all, any publicly funded public space or amenity should at all times be accessible to all.
Sometime in the 90s, sex-segregated hours became the norm at this pool at the request of Orthodox Jewish women and since there wasn’t any public outcry, it was easy to accommodate this request… until now.
Presently the authorities are now trying to work out a solution that would be both acceptable and legal.
While this might be acceptable to most people and objectionable to just a few, it doesn’t necessarily make it legal. Public amenities after all in western democracies cannot exclude anyone based on anything, especially their sex.
As the demographics in western countries change, demands and requests are being made to cities to allow for female-only timings at swimming pools. Orthodox Jews, some Muslims, conservative religious groups and new immigrants who are big on modesty would rather drown than let men and boys see them in bathing suits.
Many swimming pools in the GTA and in other parts of Canada now feature women-only swim timings. Some have dark screens that cover the viewing gallery so no men can supposedly feast their eyes on exposed skin. Even the lifeguards are conveniently women.
Segregated swimming is now becoming so common that few even bother to question the legality of it.
The University of Toronto, Mississauga has dedicated hours for women only in various parts of their Rec Centre. This was done in response to many requests from women who were until then reluctant to be seen using gym equipment or swimming because of religious/modesty reasons.
In Sweden, its democracy minister Alice Bah Kuhnke in a television interview admitted she found gender-segregated swimming hours problematic and called mixed-gender swimming “a victory after many years and generations of gender-equality struggle.”
All this talk about gender-equality struggle means little or next to nothing for many new immigrants who are quite comfortable with their culturally and religiously approved versions of it. And when it comes to swimming with members of the opposite sex in a publicly-funded swimming pool, religious requirements triumphs any human rights law.
Those who are unsettled by more and more swimming pools offering women-only swimming schedules believe this is a case of trickling religious intrusion into public spaces.
To those champions of reasonable accommodation, carving out time-slots for female-only swimming is as reasonable as it gets.
A large percentage of women in many South Asian and Muslim communities across Canada don’t swim. Many female children aren’t encouraged or actively discouraged from learning to swim because it involves wearing a bathing suit and swimming or frolicking in the water in full view of men.
In a country like Canada which has the largest number of fresh water lakes in the world, learning to swim is a life skill. So then comes the question about us as a society. How do we encourage immigrant females who avoid swimming pools because of religious and cultural barriers?
Across the western world, governments have made countless exceptions to accommodate turbans, beards, hijabs etc in order to facilitate greater participation from religious minorities.
How different is carving out time for women-only swimming? Would it alter our secular credentials?
So many gyms like Curves, (pardon the name) cater exclusively to women.
The fact is that many women regardless of religious beliefs do feel awkward working out or swimming in places where there are men. That reluctance could be due to body image issues, obesity or simply their personality.
This might explain why many of these women-only swim timings draw women who come there because they just feel more comfortable in a bathing suit among women.
However I can see why many people holding secular values feel uncomfortable when large screens block these swimming women from sight. Sequestering women behind giant screens to ostensibly protect them from the gaze of men is quite frankly insulting.
To Canadians who’ve grown up swimming in pools filled with both sexes and even transgender people, this sort of development sounds ominous. This is why many are probably wondering-What’s next.