Muslim swimmers

Posted: Wed Apr 21 2010

Time Out investigates the trend in which many London swimming pools cater to the needs of Muslim and Jewsih swimmers. And asks: are they right to do so?

Yasmin Patel is showing me her new burkhini. Covered from neck to ankle in a ruby-red Lycra tunic, with matching trousers and head scarf, she splashes through the water like a bright tropical fish.

It's lunchtime at St George's leisure centre, Shadwell. Around the teaching pool where Yasmin is swimming the windows have been blacked out with sheets and the entrances sealed off. In the pool with Yasmin are 30 otherwomen, swimming and chatting. Their T-shirts, leggings, tracksuit bottoms and jewel-coloured burkhinis create a bobbing kaleidoscope of colour.

This lunchtime splash is one of several women only sessions held by the pool every week, and while you don't have to be a Muslim to take part, almost all of the swimmers here today are.

It's a scene played out across London every week. Apart from women-only sessions, many pools offer men-only sessions aimed at Muslim men; others offer slots for Jewish women and Jewish schoolchildren.

But as cuts to our public services inevitably loom, maybe it's time to ask: should our public facilities be used to benefit different communities in this way?

Muslim swimming
Yasmin's answer is a resounding 'yes'. 'It's fantastic that there are women-only sessions,' says the 24 year old, who is learning to swim. 'I never would have tried swimming if the women-only sessions didn't exist.'

Another swimmer at St George's, Hasina Assam, 38, who is clad in a pink sweatshirt and Lycra leggings, says the Koran requires her to be modest and she comes because she is 'shy' about showing her body in front of men, a feeling echoed by most of the women here.

Although there is obviously no mention of council pool facilities in the Koran, the holy text does encourage modesty and this has been interpreted as a censure on Muslim women and men mixing in situations where physical contact could arise.

Muslim women are also obliged to cover their bodies, so a regular swimsuit is seen to violate Islamic teaching. In London pools, women can cover up fully if desired - unlike one public pool in France, where a woman was evicted last year for wearing a burkhini, on grounds of hygiene.

But it's a subject that has caused controversy in London too. Last summer, Thornton Heath Leisure Centre came under fire after swimmers complained about a dress code that appeared onits website.

Under information about its singlesex swimming sessions it said: 'During special Muslim sessions, male costumes must cover the body from the navel to the knee and females must be covered from the neck to the ankles and wrists.'

After an outcry from non-Muslim swimmers who objected to having to adhere to religious dress, Croydon Council removed the notice. The council told Time Out it had been a 'mistake', adding: 'We are keen to ensure sporting facilities are accessible to the whole community. We appreciate that certain religious groups, such as Muslims, have strict rules on segregation of activities including sports, so in response to requests from the local community we have been running these [single-sex] sessions for the past year.'

However, the area's Norbury Islamic Academy also advertised the sessions (for 'brothers' and 'sisters') on its website under the heading 'Muslim Fitness Programme' and stated: 'Please adhere to the Islamic dress code (otherwise you will be refused entry)'.

The council insists such special 'Muslim sessions' have never existed and the Islamic Academy has now removed the details from its website. It refused to speak to us to clarify the matter.

Benefits to women
The waters on this issue remain muddy; councils cannot legally state single-sex sessions are aimed at specific religious groups, but the reality is they mostly are.

'We can't say the sessions are Muslim-only,' says Lubna Khan, parent support advisor for Loxford School in Ilford, which offers women-only sessions, 'but they are aimed at Muslim women and the majority who attend are Muslim.' She says there has been massive interest in the service as it can guarantee a female lifeguard.

'There are so many benefits in getting Muslim women active,' says Rimla Akhtar, chairwoman of the Muslim Women's Sport Foundation, which organises Muslim women-only events.

'Traditionally they come from sedentary cultures and we are seeing a high incidence of diabetes and obesity among them. We need to reach out to the greatest number and this is the way to do it. This is not about segregation.'

Figures from Sport England show Muslim women are less likely to take up exercise than other groups, with 39 per cent of women nationwide participating in sports compared to 19 per cent of Indian and Bengali women.

Jewish swimming
But the problem isn't confined to Muslims. In Hackney, more than 600 Charedi (ultra-orthodox) Jewish children swim in separate weekly sessions at Clissold Leisure Centre and Kings Hall.

'According to Jewish law, mixed swimming is not allowed. We have no mixed social activities. It leads to temptation and wrong things,' said a spokesperson from North London Jewish Youth Community, who wished to remain anonymous.

The group, which hires out the pools privately, has been organising separate swimming sessions since 1976 and says more slots are desperately needed. 'We have hundreds of children on our waiting lists who want this facility badly,' said the NLJYC spokesperson. 'These children have no TV, no sports and few other outlets to get fit.'

But how far should our councils go in attempting to include such groups? And if some groups feel uncomfortable swimming in each other's company, how about playing badminton, basketball or squash together?

A 2007, report by the Muslim Council of Britain highlighted some of these issues when it advised schools to offer individual changing cubicles for primary school boys and girls in PE classes and suggested that Muslim children 'should not be expected to participate in communal showering'.

The guidance advised that sports involving physical contact, such as basketball, should happen only in single-gendergroups and swimming should also be single-sex. During Ramadan, it noted, some pupils might wish to be excused from swimming if they fear that swallowing water would break their fast.

Caution needed
'I feel more comfortable swimming naked, but I wouldn't expect what's good for me is necessarily good for everyone else,' says Douglas Murray from the Centre for Social Cohesion.

'Equality is just that: putting up with different things, not asking for specific rights. If it's an issue of Muslim women not getting enough exercise, this is not the way to address it. It appears a small issue but it betokens something larger. It suggests that these communities are breeds apart and have special requirements. Such people [who call for segregation] will never be satisfied.'

Some Muslim groups are also cautious about this latest trend. 'Councils need to take a proportionate view to religious requirements and should be cautious about adjustments,' says Tehmina Kazi from" class="external">British Muslims for Social Democracy.

'These facilities profess to be open to all but in practice it is usually minority groups they are catering to. Women-only swimming is okay if it really is open to everyone but councils need to ensure non-Muslims don't feel out of place or that they are perceived as bending over backwards to pressure tactics by certain groups.'

Non-Muslim swimmers I spoke to at St George's pool and at York Hall in Bethnal Green liked the fact that these pools offered women-only sessions, but felt the main problem was pressure for places.

'As these are the only slots some religious groups will attend there are queues round the block and it's often hard to get in,' said an elderly Jamaican woman at York Hall.

In fact, the sessions I attended - in my bluestocking Speedo one-piece - were convivial and friendly. But, ironically, given that they were women-only, I wouldn't have felt comfortable wearing a bikini there - and not just because of my tummy roll.

Some of the names have been changed.