Women-only pools: New York Times still says they are OK for Muslims, but not Jews?

When is a pool not a pool?

When it’s a war zone. Which is what a certain pool in Brooklyn, N.Y., has become in recent months.

First, here's some background. You might recall a bucolic New York Times piece some months ago about a Toronto neighborhood pool that was the essence of Canadian openness. The Times called it a “model of inclusion” in the headline over the story of a pool that has separate women-only swim times for Muslims, then transgender people. The writer was positively rapturous over the gender-neutral locker rooms (it didn’t say what folks do in terms of showers), the yoga classes from women veiled up to their eyeballs with a niqab and disabled-friendly architecture.

Switch the venue east to Brooklyn, however, and a June 29 Times story about a similar pool with separate swimming hours for Orthodox Jewish women is about religious/gender intolerance. Yes, this is new coverage of the dispute that our own tmatt dug into recently in another post ("Swimmin' Orthodox Women").

Let's read further:

Under slate-colored light slanting from the skylights, the women entered the city pool on Wednesday morning, its oxidized copper ceiling lending a mint-green cast to the water’s surface. Their swimming outfits would have been considered prudish even by the standards of 1922, when the pool was built. They swam in dresses, some with long sleeves. One paddled in thick black tights. Inside the locker room, wigs sat upside down on window ledges and benches while their owners swam with heads under ruffled swimming caps or knotted silk scarves.
The swimmers were Hasidic women, who abide by strict codes of modesty and who go to the Metropolitan Recreation Center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for an unusual feature: It is one of two city swimming pools with gender-segregated hours. The other is the St. John’s Recreation Center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Although Wednesday was the urbanite’s summer solstice — the day that New York City’s 55 outdoor pools opened for the season and children could, at last, carom into the chlorine — the swimming season at the placid indoor pool in Williamsburg lasts all year. But a tempest has been threatening it, and the women who have long seen the lap pool as a sanctuary are awaiting a decision that city officials now say is imminent about the future of the segregated swimming sessions.
For 20 years, the center has blocked off female-only hours to accommodate the area’s large Hasidic population. The pool has no male-only hours, and some Hasidic men swim during the hours that are open to all genders. An anonymous complaint was lodged recently with the city’s Human Rights Commission, which sent a notice to the parks department this spring saying that the policy might violate a city law barring gender discrimination in public accommodations.

Later in the story, the reporter interviews a disgusted male patron:

Women’s hours are held three times a week during the summer months. At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, a lifeguard’s whistle squealed. “Everybody out,” she said.
In fact, the message was just for the men. The women’s hours would begin at 10:30 a.m. (There was a half-hour break in between.) Swimming freestyle in the lane marked “Slow,” Tim Main stopped and gripped the pool ladder, peeling off his goggles. He turned to the nearest pool-goer and threw up his hands. “I hope this goes all the way to the Supreme Court,” he said before climbing out and shaking off.

Then after the inevitable ACLU quote accusing the women of “imposing a regime of gender discrimination” on pool patrons, we get:

Gripping a yellow pool noodle, Miriam Kahn, 77, treaded water in a pink dress and a pink ruffled swimming cap on Wednesday morning. “In our religion, women don’t go to no beach, don’t go to no movies, nothing,” she said in a thick Israeli accent. “Can’t we have this something?”

So we do get voices from both sides, including the Democratic state assemblyman whose area is heavily Hasidic. The female reporter covering this story had a humorous sidebar explaining how she did the interviewing for this story and how she had no problem finding space for her own strokes.

I was left feeling that more of this story needed to be told. The story referenced the Toronto pool, then added there are similar programs elsewhere in the United States.

Pray tell: Where? Here are links to stories about a YMCA pool in San Diego with women-only hours, another YMCA pool in Minneapolis, even a female-only swim hour at George Washington University in the District. All the pools mentioned here are private, albeit receiving taxpayer money), and the Jewish Week points out that no one seems to have a problem when it's Muslims getting accommodations.

In the comments section of the Times story, one writer pointed out the pool is women-only four times a week, not three and one of those times is Sunday afternoons, a high-volume time for everyone. Another said that a lesbian friend of hers got chased out of the women’s room by Hasidic women saying she looked like a boy and that the bathroom stalls are monopolized by the Jewish swimmers because they refuse to change in front of each other.

Still others noted that public pools have specific times for children only and no one’s threatening a lawsuit over that. What’s interesting is that it’s not so much a religion question (non-Jewish women are allowed in the pool at that time) as it’s a gender question. Is separation of the genders an option any more in our society?

But anyone can spot the big question here: Would the ACLU have complained had the group using the pool been Muslim?

Is there any record of anyone complaining when there’s been Muslim-only swim hours in pools around the country? Why is it that the Times piece on the Toronto pool waxed eloquent on its inclusivity whereas the report on the Brooklyn pool was less enthusiastic? Again, we wrote here about earlier coverage of this dispute, including a Times editorial calling the situation “a theocratic view of government services.”

The Israeli daily Haaretz published a different take on the topic by comparing the Williamsburg pool with the Crown Heights facility, which has women-only hours only one evening a week and that for two hours, along with a male-only time during another evening. It also pointed out that the Williamburg women originally only had swim times on Monday and Friday mornings, but they demanded – and got – extra sessions on Wednesdays and Sundays.

The Haaretz piece, which included quotes from Jews supporting and opposing the Hasidim, went into much more detail as to the complications (in terms of pool drains) that come up when Orthodox women swim fully clothed and why just telling the Hasidim to build their own pool won’t work. What is fascinating here is that not only is this a conflict between Hasidim and some of the secular populace that’s been moving into their section of Brooklyn, but it’s also a liberal-conservative conflict among Jews themselves.

The devil is in the details in this situation, whereby the Hasidic women may have a compelling reason for separate pool hours, but are they entitled to such a sizeable chunk each week? And why is it that such a situation benefiting Muslim women is OK but a similar one for Jewish women is not? Any ruling on this may be all or nothing; keeping things the same or excluding these women entirely, in which no one really wins except for the New York Times editorial page. 

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