Who's Afraid of Muslim Women Exercising?

When a YMCA recently set up an extra swim class for a group of Muslim women, it caused an unprecedented backlash. The women sought a safe space to exercise without men around -- in a way that would honor their Muslim faith and their personal traditions of modesty.
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Co-authored with Adina Batnitzky.

Imagine this scenario: a group of women in southern California ask their local YMCA for an extra swim class. The YMCA would have to stay open a bit later than usual, but it happily obliges. It is summer, and the women, who are content to pay for the class, are eager to use this opportunity to improve their health. For many of them, it will even be their first time in the pool.

Why did they ask for this class in the first place? Perhaps their work schedule prohibits them from finding another suitable time. Perhaps they are shy and prefer not to swim around other people, even men. Perhaps this is a unique opportunity for the women in the community to bond together. Any of those reasons would have probably been met with widespread approval or even indifference. None would have sparked the outcry that this class did.

When a San Diego YMCA recently set up an extra swim class for a group of East African Muslim women, it caused an unprecedented backlash. The women who requested this class sought a safe space to exercise without men around -- in a way that would honor their Muslim faith and their personal traditions of modesty.

The website Jihad Watch called the class "racist" and likened it to "all-white swimming hours."

In local outlets, some said it foreshadowed an Islamic "takeover" of our society. Some said the "Y" was sustaining practices, such as veiling, that are supposedly deleterious to women. Others claimed these women should be assimilated not accommodated. For the first time in its history, the website for PBS's local television station cut off all comments.

But such distorted talk about Islam distracts from the matter at hand. This is a public health issue, and if the women were from any other background or religious faith, this controversy would not exist. This swim class should be applauded, promoted and even extended to other communities.

Public health officials are increasingly talking about ways to get people moving in our country. Michelle Obama has helped make promoting exercise and combating obesity a top national concern. But our one-size-fits-all approach to health needs some alterations.

Americans tend to be sympathetic to economic explanations for a lack of physical activity (say, people can't afford gym memberships or don't have the time to exercise because of their busy work schedule). But we have a harder time grappling with cultural norms that might prevent exercise.

The East African community requesting this class is a community with high rates of hypertension and diabetes. Shouldn't we be celebrating their efforts to actively improve their health through exercise?

Research among Muslims in the Arab world (conducted by Adina Batnitzky) has shown that women have higher rates of obesity than men precisely because they rarely have culturally appropriate spaces for exercise. And when such places do exist, they are reserved largely for the upper class.

Isn't it a testament to America that Muslim women of any socioeconomic status can find or even create suitable spaces for exercise here? Even more remarkable is that they are doing this at the Young Men's Christian Association. Our forefathers, who traveled here to practice their faith in the way they wanted, would be proud.

Some of the most perverse comments suggested that these Muslim women only requested this class because they were being "brainwashed" or "controlled" by their husbands. Why else, this line of thinking goes, would they not want to exercise around men? But many women prefer to exercise only around other women. In fact, all-women's gyms dot the country with very little objection. (Curves is the most famous.) And this class at the "Y" is open to all women, regardless of whether or not they are Muslim.

Public health officials should learn from these women. We are slowly recognizing the need to take patients' backgrounds into consideration when it comes to health care delivery. But we need to do the same when it comes to preventing poor health. More communities should be implementing culturally specific exercise classes, especially for immigrants and ethnic minority groups with higher risks of lifestyle-related diseases.

The women at this YMCA are honoring both their background and their need for better health. That is just the type of thing that will get all Americans moving.

A modified version of this piece appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune. Adina Batnitzky is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of San Diego. Avi Spiegel is an assistant professor of political science and international relations at the University of San Diego and a Fellow at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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