Monday, October 25, 2010

Should GW Have Separate Pool Hours for Muslim Women Students?

Photo by Albi
George Washington University has one recreational pool for all members of the university community. Recently, at the request of a few Muslim women students who, for religious reasons, will not use the pool while men are present, the University instituted a once-a-week female-only swimming hour.  During that time a female lifeguard will be on duty and the window in the door to the pool at Hel-Well (the Health and Wellness Center) will be covered so no man can get an inadvertent glimpse of the women who do not permit themselves to be viewed by men unveiled.

While this subject is already one of heated debate within the GW community and throughout the area (thanks to TBD for their reporting on this), we think it has implications for other schools and public facilities as well. What's your opinion? Was this a worthwhile accommodation for the university to have made? Or does it impinge upon the rights of male students to full access of the facilities? Does this action open the door to demands for separation in other facilities (in the gym or work-out rooms, for example)? In 2008 Harvard instituted female-only hours at one of its gyms in response to a request by some of its female Muslim students. (There are, however, other gyms at Harvard that remain open to men during those hours.)

You can vote in our poll as well as give us your thoughts below.


  1. Freedom of religion is the freedom to practice your religion, not an entitlement to other people giving up their freedom to accommodate your beliefs. Your beliefs, your problem.

  2. I agree with anonymous. Religionists can build their own pools in their places of worship. Would they expect DC public pools to honor their superstitions and dogmas?

    I noticed that the poll is split. I would bet that most of those voting "yes" are non-muslim women who just like the idea of some women only time in the pool. Many pools have adult only times, just because sometimes the quiet is nice.

  3. I agree with Frank. My initial reaction was, 'wouldn't it be nice to have a time w/out the men?,' then realized that it would only be fair if the men had the same 'time out.' I KNOW that's the reason there are so many 'yes's,' because I did think that.

    Then my wishful thinking came to an abrupt halt when I realized women have come too far to start any type of segregation thing all over again.

    So I agree with Anonymous 2:36p. completely. I really don't think if a Christian group asked the same accommodations it would be given, either.

  4. Universities and Higher Education have long a history of inclusion- it's often a place of solace for those who are in some way "different". I absolutely disagree that this kind of policy would only be created for one religion or group, but that if any of the religions or special groups that required modesty requested this that it would be considered and likely granted (and is anyone really trying to argue that Muslims are always getting an elite status? Have we been listening to the rhetoric out there lately?). I think if we look practically at the situation, we see that the university is simply looking for a way to allow these women to practice their religion and to swim simultaneously.

    To make anything more of it is probably pretty unnecessary. Most university pools are not that busy and other specialty swim times (particularly around age) are quite common.

    I don't think anyone is saying that these women are "owed" anything, but that they are being "offered" something...can't the university choose to do this? It feels a little bit uncharitable to me for people to be up in arms about "Sister swim".

    I also think that as a neighborhood, we should think twice about making so many judgments about each other's religious views. To say "women have come too far" is an offensive view to most Muslims-and we have to go there? I mean, we all have the ability with free speech to say whatever we want, but I want to hold people accountable to being civil and neighborly too.

  5. On one count, I have no problem with the accommodation of muslim women in their desire to be shielded from men at the swimming pool. After all, American University is a private institution, so it's their right to set rules governing the use of facilities on campus. If AU chooses to allow sectarian bias in their operation, so be it; the public always has better options. (It would be an altogether different story at a public pool.)

    On two counts, I do have objections. First, as a general matter, secular institutions walk a slippery slope, when they cater to religious (or any other sort of) bias; they oblige themselves, I think, to honor the beliefs and practices of any group represented in their community -- no matter how weird or discriminatory. I don't think a university should be in the business of doing this.

    Second, let's get real about this particular matter. Innocuous as it might seem, the desire of these muslim women to segregate themselves at a swimming pool serves only to perpetuate Islam's methods of sequestering and mistreating women. It is hard to watch the oppression of women in muslim societies today -- harder yet, when people in those societies give themselves up to it as, it seems to me, these women are doing. I don't believe an american university ought make itself party to this kind of backward practice.

  6. I'm the first anonymous poster.

    These conversations bother me.

    I think it is important to stand up for western and secular values.

    However, these issues have at least two bad extremes. Bigots taking it as an invitation for hate. Then there are people who are afraid to stand up for OUR values for fear of being labeled as a bigot.

    Public schools take breaks for Christian and Jewish holidays. If Ramadan is included in that someday, fine.

    However, in the GW situation the rights of some students to use the pool at given times is being encroached upon by a particular group.

    As someone else pointed out, that accommodation is encouraging of sexual segregation...a step backwards.

    The Muslim women are free to use the pool as everyone else is.

    If another groups of people said they wanted a special time to use the pool without gays, blacks, irish people or jews present everyone would flip out and call that wrong, but if you say it is a rule of your religion then we are supposed to respect excluding people for you just because it is labeled as a religious rule.

    No way.


  7. To say "women have come too far" is an offensive view to most Muslims-and we have to go there?

    Why not? Cultural sensitivity begins at home. To American values it is a step backwards.

    Talking about other people's values and beliefs shouldn't be discouraged just because it falls under "religion"

    There is a difference between being deliberately offensive for its own sake and uttering ideas someone might find offensive as part of a needed discussion.

    I'm sure that in 1919 talking about women going out and voting was offensive to people too.


  8. "women have come too far?"

    Thank you, Steve. I couldn't have said it better.

  9. One hour per week for modesty? How modest a request.


  10. I agree with the last anonymous comment. One hour for women to be able to practice their sport without feeling on display in a bathing suit to every college male in that gym does not seem like an unreasonable request. The muslim women at GWU may have had their religious views as the catalyst for making the request, however; this is something I could see many young women appreciating.

    As a society, we overwhelmingly look the other way as women continue to be objectified and oogled--in the context of a university gym, this happens all the time. In reality, young college males don't have the same pressures. If these women ask for one hour a week...just one hour out of the entire they can exercise with modesty for their health it seems like a small concession to make.

    Women have come very far--so far in fact that a minority can speak up--so far that some do not want to compromise their comfort levels or betray their beliefs or go without having a voice. If men at GWU would also like a private hour, give it to them too. The school should be open to accommodating the students who are paying tuition.

    --GWU Alum, Female gym user

  11. How about this?

    Should GW Have Separate Pool Hours for Women Students?

    George Washington University has one recreational pool for all members of the university community. Recently, at the request of a few women students who, for personal reasons, don't wish to use the pool while men are present, the University instituted a once-a-week female-only swimming hour. During that time a female lifeguard will be on duty and the window in the door to the pool at Hel-Well (the Health and Wellness Center) will be covered so no men can observe the women who do not wish to be viewed in their bathing suits, similar to women-only exercise clubs.

    Not quite so hot a topic, I think.


  12. There are women-only schools.Why didn't the sensitive muslim women go to one of those?

    Will the school accommodate their request for women-only classes? How about women only cafeterias?

    It is a bad decision by the university. Of course they CAN do it. But it is an affront to those who believe in an inclusive secular society. It is not religious acceptance. It is an accommodation to religious intolerance, the intolerance of certain muslim women to accept living in an inclusive society.

  13. If you allow a "women only", why not a "whites only" hour? Or a "legal domestic violence" policy?

    The US Constitution and Civil Rights act require equal accommodation in public spaces.

    This is an obvious first step towards imposing Islamic Sharia law. Among other things, the Sharia viewpoint views Christians as "Kaffirs", or Infidels. And it allows for domestic violence against women and children.

    Let's stand up for the US Constitution and say no to Sharia.

  14. Have a exclusionary and wacky belief?

    Label it "religion" and you will get a free pass. In this case, a pool pas.

    There are too many bigots in this country, but there are also too many cowards. People too scared of being labeled as insensitive or "not nice" to defend our values.


  15. The more we discriminate/separate the more there will be discrimination/separation.

    The U.S. should be a country of "freedom" so if we start to segregate women (regardless of race, creed, status), then why not start segregating men -- why can't they get their own separate hour? This can go on an on and apply beyond the pool.

    America was not founded on the principles of discrimination and segregation -- or at least that is my understanding.

  16. Many pools that serve a varied community have times set aside for particular groups?e.g., families, senior citizens, swim teams, and no one thinks twice about it. Presumably, the purpose of the GWU pool is to encourage members of the university community to exercise. Just as with other pools, having hours tailored to the concerns of specific groups serves that purpose.

    Moreover, though this women-only hour was requested by Muslim women, it will probably be a boon to other women who don't like swimming with male undergrads looking on -- say chunky coeds and female profs with cellulite

  17. Sally Canzoneri said...
    Many pools that serve a varied community have times set aside for particular groups?e.g., families, senior citizens, swim teams, and no one thinks twice about it.

    It is not the accommodation that is they issue, it is the reasoning behind it that this the problem.

    In this case the reasoning is a religious view of women that contradicts western values.

  18. I'm with "GWU Alumn" and "Tolerant" -- Islam isn't the only religion where modesty is a "thing". Orthodox Judaism and some branches of Christianity make a big deal out of it too.

    And yeah, I do think a no-ogling time is good. I'm one of two feminists I know who dress very modestly specifically because we want wreck the requirement Western society has for women to be on-display for the male gaze at all times.

  19. (Oh, and no, I wouldn't have a problem with an equal amount of time being set aside for men-only either)

  20. Hello - does anyone know any women only places/facilities in DC where my wife could swim or exercise? You have to be a student or faculty at GW to take advantage of this women only swimming hour (btw: I believe it is one hour a WEEK, not one hour each day as someone posted, so please, spare me the affront to the Constitution and slippery slope to Sharia B.S. and all that. Besides, GW is a private university, no?)...

  21. @ anonymous 11:16 am

    It only takes a little for something to become a lot. So please, I love my Constitution, and I don't want any slippery slopes to affront it AT ALL.

    P.S. Put a pool in your home if you're so worried about someone seeing your wife.

    Thank you.

  22. Um, sorry but it's my wife who is following her religious convictions and I am just trying to help her out. We live in a DC Row House - if you can figure out how to put a pool in our little patch of yard to code, would love that! As for me, I am worried when our elected officials who take an oath to defend, support and have faith in the Constitution make statements to the contrary, not when women want to swim or exercise with women on private property. I am referring to when our congressional representatives (well yours, we don't have any in DC), spoke out against the Islamic Cultural Center in NYC over the summer calling it a "Ground Zero Mosque". That little affront to the First Amendment that they are sworn to uphold took us all down the slope a bit, but still not a lot as the Constitution is bedrock, while politicos are transient.

  23. There's always little plastic or blow-up baby pools. That would fit in your yard, and I don't believe you need to follow any codes with them. So no one sees her, you could always bring it inside.

    About the NY thing, I believe they have the right to put the mosque anywhere they like, but I thought it would have been very considerate if they moved the place/plans somewhere else after seeing how it affected so many people. I believe many would have seen it as a very generous and kind gesture, and perhaps to some, it might sow more tolerance and understanding.

  24. I suspect that some entrepreneurial woman will craft an appropriately modest swimming costume. I can't imagine what that would look like, but if someone wants badly enough to comply with the stricture and also swim in public facilities, a creative genius might just emerge :-)

  25. Personally, I don't see why any member of the general public should have a problem with GW University setting aside one sole hour a week for a women-only swim. First of all, it's a private institution, and that means those of us who aren't students there, or who don't work there, really have no "right" to meddle in their affairs.

    Aside from the fact that I have no dog in this fight (I'm not Muslim), nor do I have any religious reason for not wanting to hang out at the pool (or beach) with men around, but even I would thoroughly enjoy having an hour where it was ladies-time-only at the pool.

    It's no fun being gawked at by men, whether you're trim and toned, or if you're frumpy and fat, or even if you're just old and wrinkled. Some of us gals simply don't like men staring at us when we're in a swimming suit (or any type of clothing, for that matter).

    I have several Muslim female friends. In the summertime, when it's hot and miserable and they'd like to cool down, they make their own private arrangements to have female-only swim parties at someone's house. They've never demanded that at a public swimming pool. And the GW pool isn't public, either. If the Muslim female students are paying a student activities fee like everyone else, I think they at least should be able to make full use the facilities that their activities fees help to pay for. Now, seriously, one measly hour a week can't possibly be a major inconvenience to others, so that any female student - not just the Muslim ones - can swim there without having any guys around.

    Religious freedom is the very principle upon which our country was founded, so what's the big deal with making a tiny accommodation for these women to swim for one hour a week. Religious accommodations are made elsewhere, too. We all don't have the same beliefs, but rarely have I seen even employers who aren't at least tolerant of and cooperative with workers who practice special observances.

    I seriously doubt that many folks who aren't even Christian would ever complain about having a holiday like Christmas off from work, or how about Thanksgiving - which is based on a group of Christian pilgrims having held a celebration of thanks (obviously long before it became a legal holiday).

    My observant Jewish co-workers always have left early on Fridays in the fall and winter, because they need to get home in time for the Sabbath. And, I might add that in order to be able to leave early on Friday, they worked extra hours during the rest of the week to make up the time.

    Many of my Muslim friends carry a prayer rug with them so they can pray on their break time, and so far as I know, nobody's every complained at my workplace or when I was in school about Muslims fasting during Ramadan.

    And I could go on, but the point I'm trying to make is that these folks weren't disruptive by being observant. They merely asked for an accommodation. I'm handicapped, so I need accommodations, too. Maybe that helps me understand tolerance better.

    But, in the spirit of the season, with the Hindu festival of Diwali having recently passed, Hanukkah taking place right now, and Muslim new year, Christmas and Kwanzaa just around the corner - all of these special celebrations having a "festival of light" connection of sort - can't we please step out of the dark and into the light, and just be a tad more understanding and tolerant of each other and our various beliefs?

  26. I don't think that one measly hour a week, at a private institution mind you, is something that the general public has any business meddling in. Those Muslim women pay student activities fees just like everyone else. Some of us women who aren't even Muslim would really appreciate an hour at the pool without a bunch of guys gawking at us, whether we're trim and toned, fat and frumpy, or just old and wrinkled.

    In the spirit of the season, with the Hindu festival of Diwali having recently passed, Hanukkah taking place right now, and Muslim new year, Christmas and Kwanzaa just around the corner (each of which has a "festival of light" component in some fashion), can't we all step out of the darkness and into the light ourselves and be a little kinder, a little more tolerant?