Women-Only Swim Hour for Muslims Makes Waves on Campus

Filed under: In The News, Religion & Spirituality

diving picture

Credit: Matt Roth, Getty Images

Maybe Dara Torres could pull it off, but just try plunging into a pool and sprinting 100 to 200 meters in full-on hijab.

In an attempt to be inclusive to all religious traditions on campus, last week George Washington University started "Sisters' Splash," a ladies-only swim hour, according to the university newspaper, The GW Hatchet. The school's Lerner Health and Wellness Center closed the pool to men and covered the glass door with a dark tarp, giving female Muslim students the chance to swim at their leisure, while honoring the basic tenets of their religion.

Everything was going swimmingly, and coeds shed their head and body gear and rocked swimsuits, at least until scores of critics began hurling heated comments that continue to pour in on various blogs and news reports, according to the journal Inside Higher Education.

"Should a minuscule minority force the overwhelming majority to abide by their rules or should it be the other way around?" is one of the Internet comments about the female-only swim, the journal reports.

Others include: "Come on, folks. An hour a week -- what's the big deal?" "It's not an unreasonable request. 'Women' is like *half* the population."

Because George Washington is a private university, there should be no constitutional issues with the swim hour, Ayesha N. Khan, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, tells Inside Higher Education.

"Should a similar program start up at a public university, the presence of church-state issues would depend on the many facts of the situation, such as whether access is religion-specific," Khan tells the journal.

Aliya Karim, social chair of the Muslim Students' Association (MSA) women's group, tells the student newspaper the organization made the effort to coordinate the swimming hour so fellow Muslims would feel comfortable in the pool.

"Personally, I would only want to go when just girls are there," Karim, who is also a Hatchet photographer, tells the newspaper.

Rahiba Noor, a junior who serves as the community service chair of the MSA, tells the newspaper that, prior to attending GW, swimming laps at a private pool was an important part of her health regimen. At school, however, Noor tells the student newspaper she's resigned herself to staying away from the water and using a treadmill.

"Religious values always define us," Noor tells the newspaper. "Although I wouldn't really mind, it would be satisfying to me religiously to swim only with girls."

For some Muslims, being in public without a hijab puts them at odds with fundamental aspects of Islam.

Valdez Williams, the operations manager of the gym, tells the newspaper the university helped the MSA coordinate the weekly swim hour because GW wanted to make the girls feel comfortable.

"At GW, we try to take care of all of our students," Williams tells the Hatchet. "As long as it's requested and works within our policies and procedures, we will generally accommodate them."

Williams says the university will try to schedule one hour each week for the female students to have private access.

"The girls should be able to swim here," Williams says. "We will not penalize them because of their religious beliefs."

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