Sweden stirs debate with women-only swimming, in nod to Muslims

As Muslims become a larger part of Swedish society, some municipal pools are offering women-only swimming to accommodate the new arrivals. But while well intended, the new policy is bumping up against Swedish ideals of equality.

Pontus Lundahl/TT News Agency/Reuters
Children play in the paddling pool at the European Village in Kungstradgarden Park during the Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm earlier this month.

On the face of it, the decision to offer special women's swimming hours at the Hyllie sports center, a municipal swimming pool in the southern Swedish city of Malmö, should not be contentious.

Indeed, Malmö is not alone. According to a survey by the Swedish TV channel TV4, 13 of Sweden's 100 largest municipalities have begun offering separate swimming hours for men and women. “Our facilities are used by 40 percent women and 60 percent men,” Johan Hermansson, the head of Malmö's recreations department, told TV4. “Our ambition is for them to be used equally by girls and boys, men and women.”

But the trend is not just about achieving 50-50 visitor figures. For decades, Swedish city swimming pools have operated mixed-gender pools, but by adding women-only hours, officials are hoping to accommodate the country's growing Muslim population.

And that is raising a much larger issue for Sweden. Should the native population adjust to immigrant groups' different lifestyles by accommodating women-only swimming and the like, thus providing access to Muslim newcomers who would otherwise not feel comfortable in gender-equal conditions? Or does the implementation of such segregation, however well intended, ultimately undermine the country's hard-earned traditions of gender equality.

Many Swedes are no longer sure. “During the past several years, we've had several Muslim women come and swim,” says Stockholm resident Carolina Johansson, who has gone to women's-only sessions at a local swimming pool for the past 20 years. “But gender-separated swimming doesn't feel like a positive development.”

To integrate or to segregate?

The separate swimming hours have cause an enormous debate in Sweden, with many calling the move regressive and a ghettoization of women, while others laud it as a sensible inclusion of the country's increasingly diverse population. This month Sweden's democracy minister, Alice Bah Kuhnke, told Swedish TV that gender-segregated swimming hours – as the system is often referred to – are problematic and called mixed-gender swimming “a victory after many years and generations of gender-equality struggle.”

In Malmö, Iva Parizkova Ryggeståhl and her fellow members of the local International Women's Association have spent a great deal of time talking about gender-separated swimming. At first, they weren't sure how to feel about it, but now they've decided they're opposed to it.

“Men who are not comfortable being in the same swimming pool as women should not be there,” Ms. Parizkova Ryggeståhl argues. “And we women shouldn't care whether men are looking at us in the swimming pool or not, and whether they get jealous or not.”

By contrast, supporters of gender-separated swimming hours maintain that without the separation Muslim women would never get a chance to swim. And Feministiskt Initiativ, Sweden's feminist party, maintains that women-only swimming benefit women in general.

“It's not just Muslim women who want women-only swimming hours; it's women from many different backgrounds,” argues Toktam Jahangiry, Feministiskt Initiativ's sexual policy spokeswoman. “For example, many women who have had a mastectomy don't feel comfortable being seen by men in the swimming pool.”

Feministiskt Initiativ also suggests that women-only swimming hours could serve a social purpose beyond health and exercise. “Swimming pools are a meeting place for women where they feel comfortable talking to one another, and women-only swimming hours make it an even better meeting point,” says Ms. Jahangiry. “A woman who is being beaten by her husband won't want other men to see her bruises in the swimming pool. But she will feel comfortable talking to other women about it there.”

Qaali Shire, a Muslim Somali mother of three, who lives in Malmö and was recently granted asylum, suggests something similar. “Women's swimming hours are very good because there are no private swimming pools for women,” she says. “Without separate pools or swimming hours, women would go to the pool with their husbands and kids and just sit because they don't feel comfortable swimming in front of men.”

Gender-separated swimming hours are good for husbands, too, Ms. Shire adds, because they don't have to feel uncomfortable over their wives swimming in front of other men. “Even if you swim in your pajamas, your husband won't like it,” she explains.

Prioritizing equalities

There's also the issue of whether women's swimming hours represents discrimination against men, as men are banned from women's swimming hours but women can swim when they like. The government's national discrimination ombudsman is now investigating whether women's swimming hours discriminate against men.

The Greens, who govern in a coalition with the Social Democrats and consider themselves a feminist party, have been particularly affected by gender debate.

Though they have not expressed an official opinion on women's swimming hours, they had nominated Yasri Khan – a young Muslim man – for their executive committee despite knowing of his faith-based refusal to shake hands with women. The furor over the handshaking incident led him to resign. Knowledge Minister Aida Hazialic, herself a Muslim, declared herself upset over his handshake refusal and pointed out that Sweden “is a country where we treat men and women the same way.”

But at least at the Hyllie sports center in Malmö, segregated policies still have appeal. On a recent afternoon in Malmö, Shire was in high spirits after having visited the women's swimming hour – her sixth time swimming at the pool's women's session. “The ladies' session is always jammed,” she noted.

And, in a further twist to Sweden's integration debate, she pointed out an important feature of the female sessions. “Because everyone's head is uncovered, you don't know who is Muslim and who is not.”

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