Modesty requirement cancels French pool day intended for Muslim women

A mayor in France has cancelled a women-only swim event in France because it would have required swimmers to dress modestly, an effort to accommodate Muslim women. Pool debates are becoming a regular flashpoint in debates about integration and cultural sensitivity. 

Chris Carlson/AP/File
Sama Wareh walks along the sand dressed in swim wear designed for Muslim women in Newport Beach, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2007. Muslim girls and women are increasingly participating in athletic activities, especially as second and third generation children of immigrants grow up surrounded by American influences. But doing so requires them to overcome a seemingly large obstacle: Islam's traditional emphasis on modest dress.

The mayor of a town near Marseilles, France, plans to cancel a pool day for women and children at a local recreation center, he said on Thursday, saying the event's requirement for Islamic dress standards could prove "provocative" in the wake of recent terror attacks.

Bathing policies are becoming a more common flashpoint between conservative faith traditions and Western culture. In France, in particular, home to the largest Muslim community in Europe, the government's strict commitment to a separation of religion and public life has frequently clashed with Muslim traditions. 

Michel Amiel, the mayor of Pennes-Mirabeau, said that after the recent terror attacks in Nice and Normandy, he was willing to take the swim day to court if his cancellation was challenged.

The mayor's main point of objection was a dress code that referenced the Islamic concepts of modesty for women, with chest to knee covered. He called it a "provocative act" that, by referencing Islamic principles, "puts oil on the fire and only maintains a deleterious climate." 

The one-day event aimed to "encourage women to join in with the community," according to Smile 13, the organization which had planned the swim day for women, girls, and boys under age 10. Responses to the plans on Smile 13's Facebook page were many, and polarized: Some comments expressed support for the "burkini" day, but others were fiercely angered by efforts to accommodate Muslim values in secular France. 

The United States has had its own experiments with accommodating women from conservative faiths. In Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, women from certain sects of Ultra Orthodox Judaism have used women-only hours at a public swimming pool. Despite an attempt by the New York City Commission on Human Rights to stop gender-segregated hours, the affected Jewish communities' leaders successfully convinced the city that women-only hours promoted tolerance for women of all faiths.  

"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, saying that Hasidic women would not be able to swim without the women-only hours. 

A similar debate occurred in Malmö, Sweden, where the country's largest Muslim population resides. A local pool raised the hackles of some women's groups by establishing all-women's swimming hours to welcome Muslim women.

"Men who are not comfortable being in the same swimming pool as women should not be there," Iva Parizkova Ryggeståhl of the local International Women's Association told the Monitor. "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." 

Other feminist groups noted that an all-female pool could also be more comfortable for women who have had a mastectomy, or other health concerns, and Muslim women noted that the women's sessions were always packed. But many Swedes saw it as a step backward in the long fight for gender equality, Elisabeth Braw reported for the Monitor:

The separate swimming hours have caused 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."

Some female politicians in France are now expressing similar concerns about the burkini day near Marseilles, arguing that the dress code is a sign some Muslim residents are not willing to integrate with French culture. 

"This Islamist day demonstrates that, outside of the comforting words of Muslim authorities, a certain number of Muslims are deciding among themselves to break away from our Republican model and put themselves outside our society," said Stéphane Ravier, a right-leaning mayor of two Marseille districts, according to the BBC. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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