What does it mean to have separate spaces for women and men? Is a women-only pool, for example, exclusive or discriminatory? From a slightly different perspective, can we say that a shared pool – a woman-and-man-only pool – is also exclusive or divisive?
Last year, in the Washington county that includes Seattle and Tukwila, King County, the questions above became the center of an important community debate. Faced with mixed swimming pools at community centers throughout the county, some local women requested an opportunity to swim alone, that is, without men. Local reports suggest the reasons ranged from body image concerns to religious beliefs. Honoring the request, the county offered women 90-minute time slots for exclusive pool use at eight community centers.
Not long after the new policy, members of the community responded with alarm. For them, the decision to grant women, many of whom are Muslim, separate swimming times was an affront to the idea of gender equality. According to a local news report on the issue, complaints against the exclusive pool times invoked ideas of discrimination, Jim Crowe segregation and human rights. Some of the more vocal dissenters suggested that the segregation of women and men at local pools violated the principles of equality and risked further marginalization of women in society.
The reaction among locals to the women-only pool times (which was complemented by a men-only pool time) in King County was not unique. In some ways, it captures the core of a widespread anxiety among some Americans about the “culture” of Muslim communities and the prescriptions of Islam. From this viewpoint, Muslim beliefs and practices are antithetical to “American values” that are said to include freedom, justice and equality. Islam, which is said to call for the separation of women and men, the covering of women’s hair and faces (what men cover is always less important to non-Muslim Americans) and the incorporation of Islamic laws into the legal system, thus represents a wellspring of retrograde ideas that pose a fundamental threat to the American normative order.
In this sense, the pool debate in King County is important because, for some Americans, it is about much more than local access to public pools; it’s about the position of Muslim communities in American social life. More specifically, it’s about a perceived conflict in the US between the religion of Muslim minority communities and the beliefs of the non-Muslim majority. Muslims are believed to represent something that conflicts with the majority population and must be checked. For these Americans, accommodations like women-only pool times are violations of a normative order rooted in principles justice and equity. Why else would words like segregation and human rights emerge in the response to separating women and men for 90 minutes at a public pool? But are they missing something? What does a women-only pool mean in terms of the American principles invoked to stop it? More specifically, what does resisting a women-only pool time mean for their ideas about the “American way?”
Avoiding the defensive track, I want to push some Americans to think about their views and positions on women-only pools. My goal is to use this example to frame a larger discussion about the norms Muslims are believed to threaten. I want to take the offensive and show how the very principles some Americans invoke to protect their public pools are undermined when they resist something like a women-only pool time for Muslims. To do this, I think the easiest place to start is with a question posed at the beginning of this essay: is a shared pool exclusive?
I think for many people, the idea that something shared could be exclusive sounds strange. How else should a public space be organized? That perspective, however, depends on a set of unquestioned norms that are anything but consistent or clear. It also depends on the historical contexts and struggles that made possible the norm of shared space.
As far as unquestioned norms about space goes, there is no single logic capable of explaining why some places are shared and others aren’t. Consider public bathrooms. We all take for granted the idea that bathrooms need to be divided according to the sexual dichotomy of female/male. I’m sure someone might offer a series of rationalizations for this division but it’s much more likely that we accept the separation because we were born into a world in which bathrooms are separate despite the fact that what goes on in those spaces is just about the same for both parties. There is, in other words, nothing particularly special about what women and men do in bathrooms that requires separating them. In addition to bathrooms, we might add fitting rooms, which are also divided according to our treasured sexual dichotomy. In both cases, someone might say that privacy is the issue. Yet if that’s the case, then I see no reason to oppose separate pools since the separation is also, to some extent, based on a desire for privacy.
The idea that a shared space is just or equal also depends on the historical context of unshared space. Segregation in the US and the struggle against racism, for example, gave a particular meaning to the opportunity of a shared lunch counter. When whites systematically and violently enforced a policy of racial separation, challenging that idea of racial exclusion through integrated spaces became an important step toward realizing freedom and equality. Similarly, discrimination against women in particular professions that presumed female inferiority created a need for integrative practices. It made access to a profession that had been historically discriminatory against women more than a shared opportunity: it made it an act of justice.
The question for Americans opposing a women-only pool time thus hinges on two things: the norms of sexual contact and the historical context for those norms. It requires attention to what informs the idea that a shared pool space is a more just option than separate pool times. Put another way, it demands that Americans opposed to separate pool times account for why they’re opposed to something that (1) is reflected in their own norms and (2) has no historical context of oppression.
Let’s look at the issue from the perspective of a Muslim who encounters a shared swimming time at a public pool. If I want to swim, I don’t have many options that offer me comfort. I might, for example, try to pick pool times that have the least traffic in the hopes that I’ll be alone or in the presence of as few patrons as possible. Or, perhaps I’ll sacrifice my own comfort and beliefs and swim in discomfort among people who have no idea what it feels like to be in such a situation. I might also simply avoid swimming altogether. In any case, the fact of a mixed pool presents numerous limits to the experience of freedom offered to those who abide by the norms of shared swimming space. I am, in short, excluded.
I know that this sounds odd to some. It sounds especially odd to those Americans who question why women would not want to be seen by men while swimming. In their view, women should be comfortable with men seeing them swim in bathing suits. But however seductive this perspective seems, it’s problematic for two reasons. First, as discussed above, American social norms already separate women from men in a variety of ways. While there are some very reasonable and compelling moral challenges to these partitions – especially from the standpoint of LGBTQ communities – the local people in King County certainly didn’t raise their voices against these divisions. On the contrary, they probably use separate locker rooms and bathrooms while swimming at the pool.
The second problem concerns a misunderstanding of, and lack of appreciation for, the desire among some Muslims to separate while swimming. Contrary to the idea that Muslims feel shame about their bodies (something plenty non-Muslim Americans feel), separation is often grounded in a larger experience of religious ethics and social being that is not unique to Muslims. For some Muslims, separation offers a space of interaction and experience that strengthens the bonds between women and men as women and men. It allows for women and men to nurture their social bonds and networks while engaging in activities that facilitate such connections. It provides, in other words, another context for Muslims to enjoy social life according to the norms that make their lives meaningful.
This, I imagine, is not so hard for non-Muslim Americans to appreciate. As a former university student, I once saw how (in their better manifestations) sororities elaborated and strengthened particular forms of social life between university “sisters.” Established exclusively for young women, they provided specific opportunities for college students to build relationships with other students while participating in the larger mixed context of the university. I also recall how one of the universities I attended offered female students an exclusive space in the campus union. Many of the female students I knew appreciated the unique context for experiencing a tranquility they believed came with the absence of men. Rather than a step backwards, the room presented a progressive move forward by creating an alternative experience to the taken-for-granted norms of hetero-masculine space. University campuses aren’t the only locations for gender-specific forms of organizations. From athletic clubs to community associations, men and women separate throughout the country. And whether one agrees or disagrees with these separations, decrying their existence as affronts to “American values” is, at the very least, simply untrue.
It is true that some Muslims separate because they believe God tells them so. For these Muslims, whatever the added social benefits of gender separation may be, it is ultimately their belief in God’s commandment to part that moves them in opposite directions. This may be an accurate interpretation of the Islamic tradition or a religious cover for sexist cultural attitudes. In either case, carving out a space in a pluralist society for the desires of an American community is no less just than it is an expression of the freedom we so thoroughly cherish. Is it not the duty of a democratic society to exercise tolerance for multiple beliefs? Is it not the flip side of the liberal coin to allow for conservative norms? I, for one, think so. And as detestable as certain values and beliefs may be, I see no compelling reason to claim that the self-inflicted wound of (what might be) sexist religious practices in a pool area need to be prohibited from our society.
If the American principles of justice, freedom and equality are going to mean anything in King County (or America), then they’re going to have to work for the just and equitable treatment of Muslims too. Offering 90-minute time slots for Muslims to enjoy swimming in comfort and dignity is anything but segregation and/or a violation of human rights. On the contrary, it presents a powerful story about the extension of American principles to the lives of those who are also American. It is, ultimately, about freedom.