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.