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Single Sex Swimming, Religious Minorities and Anti-Discrimination

This morning, my wife, five year old son and I thought it might be nice to go swimming in the newly re-opened local swimming pool, Clissold Leisure Centre. We got to the pool at 10.30, to be told that:

– the main pool was too deep to be safe for a five year old;
– the “training” pool was women only between 10.45 and 12.30 every Sunday;

I got angry. I nearly swore. I rarely get angry at people who are doing no more than implementing a policy, because it isn’t fair on them. I apologised.

Not to worry, we thought. I’ll go in the main pool. My wife and son will go to the training pool. However, that was not permitted. My son, being of the male gender, was not allowed in a women-only swimming session.

I asked why this policy had been put in place, in a way which prevented families swimming together, at a peak time, on the one day of the week during which both mothers and fathers were likely to be doing family things. What reason was there for barring very little male children from the training pool? Why schedule the single-gender swimming session right in the middle of the morning, so that families which arrived at (say) 10.15 would only have half an hour before they were chucked out? Why not schedule it for early in the morning or late in the evening, or on a week day?

Apparently, the policy had been set by Hackney’s Equal Opportunities officer.

However, there was a paddling pool open at 11 in which he would be allowed to splash around. No use for learning to swim, we discovered when we got there. The pool was absolutely filled with families with toddlers, many of whom had been chucked out of the training pool in order to make way for the women only swimming session. They stood around for 10 minutes, dripping in the corridor, before the paddling pool was finally open.

While in the paddling pool, I met a woman whose husband was a Hackney councillor. She was also rather angry. I suggested that this was a classic example of an equal opportunities officer trying to cater to an illusory problem, and in doing so, simply feeding the xenophobic prejudices peddled by the Daily Mail.

Apparently not, she said. There were fierce battles in Hackney Council over the issue. The main movers for prime time single sex swimming were the Hassidic jews. She was not racist, she stressed: but they had the advantage of being able to run an effective community-based letter-writing campaign, and of organising politically around the issue.

Fine, I said. And what would the policy be if a group of racists decided that “sensitivity” to their cultural preferences resulted in a whites only swimming session? Why should a public institution subsidise the expression, in a public place, of the gender apartheid practice mandated by a small religious minority at all?

She laughed. Perhaps I have spent a little too long arguing about this sort of stuff on Harry’s Place. But she was still pissed off at the timing of the swimming session: snap bang in the middle of the traditional day for family activities. If we wrote letters to councillors, perhaps we would be able to persuade the Council to move the gender segregated swimming time to one which was less disruptive for the majority. The Hassidic jewish councillors had made an almighty fuss about the issue, and the arguments had been fierce: but a compromise had been reached, which was to schedule women only swimming for Sunday mornings.

My wife suggested that it might be an idea to have the sessions during a weekday, before 6 p.m., when the Hassidic jewish women – who are less likely to work than non-religious women – would be able to make use of the pool without preventing working families from enjoying a traditional Sunday pastime.

Anyhow, what do you think?

There are non-religious reasons that pools run single sex swimming. There will be non-religious separatist women who don’t want to swim in the presence of men too. Swimming involves a degree of inadvertent body contact. Some women might, fairly, not want to be touched by men, for reasons unconnected with religious taboos. Although, peeking into the segregated pool, I have to say that it was mostly a relatively small number of Hassidic jewish women who were swimming, and a smaller number of muslim women.

There are also times – largely during the week, it should be said – where there are disabled swimming sessions.

Should a public facility accomodate the religious taboos practiced by a minority of the adherents to Judaism and Islam at all? It seems unreasonable to me to expect women who are religious jews or muslims to ignore what they regard as a religious obligation. To do so would have the effect of denying them the ability to swim. But, then again, many people both abandon restrictive religious injunctions, and others freely adopt them during the course of their lives. Religious identity is considerably less tightly fixed than – say – gender identity.

Does it make any difference that the prohibition on men swimming with their male children in the middle of a Sunday morning is phrased, not in terms of sensitivity to religious concerns, but by reference to gender? Should it matter than many – though not all – of those women who would not swim in the presence of men, are motivated by a desire follow a particular religious teaching?

If you think there should be a balance, how should it be struck? Would it be OK if the women only swimming sessions were not in the middle of a Sunday morning? Or is it the mark of a good anti-discrimination policy that it sometimes distributes prime benefits to religious minorities?

How does the principle of non-discrimination apply here? Sure, the “needs” of one particular minority have been accomodated, but at the expense of others: families who want to swim together on Sundays, and single male parents, particularly those who work on Saturdays.

Is my reaction unreasonable?