In Copenhagen, a swimming club has recently started offering female-only sessions to allow more girls the opportunity to swim. Since it began, the program has drawn around 246 girls of non-Danish origin (interestingly, it is much more difficult to find information on whether any girls of Danish ethnic origin also take part). The numbers are telling, for they express a significant improvement in non-Danish female participation. However, others have seen this measure as going against “Danish values.” In this context, the values that are supposedly Danish are the antithesis of all that is deemed Islamic.
At the surface, sex-segregated spaces for Muslims are emphasized as a means of accommodating women who do not feel comfortable in the company of males who are not relatives. However, there is nothing inherently Islamic about sex segregation. In the times of the Prophet (PBUH), numerous sources reveal many mosques did not separate men and women with physical partitions. Women were to feel comfortable discussing and arguing their ideas with men within mosques. This idea of sex segregation as something strictly Muslim is a portrayal of Islam as something foreign, mystifying, and backwards.
The practice of sex segregation is still often seen as a major characteristic of Islam. It is this notion of sex segregation being described as something inherently Islamic that causes fear. Ironically, all across the West, sex segregation is everywhere from bathroom stalls, clothing stores, sports matches, etc. If it is widely accepted for women to compete in sports separate from their male counterparts, then why would it be a problem for them to practice apart? The fact that some Muslim women might benefit from this allowance apparently troubles the Danish public.
To segregate can mean to make separate, but it can also mean to accommodate by creating new spaces. For Muslim women who choose to cover, there are no explicit restrictions stopping them from swimming with everyone else in public pools. There are always other clothing options, except for the fact that it is not as easy it may seem to just wear longer clothes to swim.
I have tried the supposed solution of the burqini. However, even as I have worn the hijab for around seven years of my life now, I have never felt at peace within the fabric for swimming. I have always felt a watchful pitying gaze in my direction when I covered in head to toe while swimming in my neighbourhood community pool. There are often signs on pool gates stating a need for swimming-specific clothing, meaning people should not wear “outdoor” clothing to swim. There are very limited options for covered swim clothing in markets within an accessible price range. I often ended up swimming in a long tee shirt and leggings, knowing that it was technically against the rules. The rules wanted me to wear a bikini or a one-piece. I wore leggings and a tee shirt. Neither was really for me.
Now, at university in Toronto, I see women’s-only hours at the gym and the pool. This gives a chance for any female-identified individuals an opportunity to not let clothing choices become a barrier for participating in sports. The fact that more swimming clubs are going out of their way to attract more female-identified individuals endorses exercise, not religion. The reality is that sexist structures exist that can make any female-identified person uncomfortable exercising with men present. Sexual harassment, catcalling, policing of body size, and unwanted male attention are examples of obstacles that women usually have to confront in their day-to-day lives.
Female-only hours create an atmosphere that attempts to be safer. With 246 new girls joining the swimming club in Copenhagen since the club started these hours, there is clearly a demand for a space like this. Now, more girls and women are exercising. Swimming separately means more people get a chance to swim and exercise freely. At the end of the day, Muslim women and any women who want the freedom to swim with the company they choose should have the choice to do so.