Gender-segregated hours for Hasidic swimmers make a splash in Brooklyn

New York City upheld a decision to keep gender-segregated hours at a public swimming pool in Brooklyn, meant to accommodate modesty rules for Hasidic Jewish communities. 

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
A woman competes in the backstroke portion of the swimming competition during the Brooklyn Senior Games at the St. Johns Recreation Center in New York on May 11, 2016. Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood, has decided to enforce gender-segregated swimming hours at public pools to appease its large Hasidic Jewish community that is prohibited from swimming in front of the opposite sex.

The clash of religious Jewish law and New York City law have caused controversy over a public swimming pool in Brooklyn.

On Wednesday, The New York City Parks Department decided to continue allowing women-only swimming hours at a public indoor pool in Williamsburg. This summer, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 9:15 a.m. to 11 a.m., and Sundays from 2:45 p.m. to 4:45 p.m., men will not be permitted in the pool.

The women-only pool time is meant to accommodate Williamsburg's large Hasidic Jewish community, whose interpretation of religious law prohibits observants from bathing in front of the opposite sex.  

While some call the decision a breach of fairness and equality, Hasidic leaders say it provides equal access to public services for strictly observant Jews. "It is a question do we believe in equality or not?" Rabbi David Niederman, director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, told The Forward. "Is our interest to ensure that every citizen should have the opportunity?" he asked, suggesting that Hasidic women would not be able to swim without the women-only hours. 

Limiting their pool access would be more damaging than if men could not go to the pool, Rabbi Niederman added, calling men in the Hasidic community "much more active.... They go, they walk, they go to work. They're all day outside. Women are more homebound." 

New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D), who represents the heavily Hasidic area of Boro Park, Brooklyn, called the decision to keep women's hours a "major victory for human rights," and pointed out that women of any race or religion could continue to use the pool. Mr. Hikind had stepped in to save the women's hours when the pool considered halting them after about two decades, warned by the New York City Commission on Human Rights that the gender-segregated hours might constitute a civil rights violation. 

"What happened to being culturally sensitive?" Hikind asked, according to local publication Kings County Politics. "I thought we were in the midst of a 'Progressive Era,' where we do everything we can to be more accepting of cultural differences."

A New York Times editorial board begs to differ, calling the decision "unfortunate": "The city's human rights law is quite clear that public accommodations like a swimming pool cannot exclude people based on sex. It allows for exemptions 'based on bona fide considerations of public policy,' but this case – with its strong odor of religious intrusion into a secular space – does not seem bona fide at all," the board wrote on Wednesday. 

"Orthodox Jewish beliefs demand modesty in dress, and a strict separation of the sexes, and those are the beliefs to which the taxpayer-owned-and-operated Metropolitan Recreation Center will yield," the editorial continues. 

The debate in Brooklyn mirrors a similar current conflict in Sweden, where the influx of Muslim immigrants has also motivated some pools to offer gender-segregated accommodations. Similarly, some feel the women-only swimming hours conflict with mainstream ideals of gender equality.

Supporters of the gender-segregated swimming hours in Sweden say that without them, observant Muslim women would not have the opportunity to swim. Moreover, all women, not just religious women, may benefit, according to Sweden's feminist party, Feministiskt Initiativ.

"It's not just Muslim women who want women-only swimming hours; it's women from many different backgrounds," Toktam Jahanigiry, Feministiskt Initiativ's sexual policy spokeswoman, told The Christian Science Monitor earlier this month. "For example, many women who have had a mastectomy don't feel comfortable being seen by men in the swimming pool."

Back in Brooklyn, the swimming pool controversy adds to ongoing cultural tensions in the borough, highlighted when Muslim and Jewish couples took the the streets in a public experiment, holding hands to gauge public reaction.

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