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Burqinis Stir Troubled Waters in Public Swimming Pools
by David J. Rusin • Aug 24, 2009 at 11:13 am
Summer is winding down in Europe, but controversies over "Islamic" swim gear and gender segregation in public pools are heating up, giving form to familiar questions about how to accommodate religious needs without restricting the rights of non-believers.
In France, a woman has been barred from wearing her burqini — a loose-fitting wetsuit that covers all but the face, hands, and feet — because municipal pool regulations "forbid swimming while clothed," according to an official. "These clothes are used in public," he argued, "so they can contain molecules, viruses, et cetera, which will go in the water and could be transmitted to other bathers." An Italian mayor also has banned burqinis in his town, citing hygiene and children's "dismay" upon seeing a "masked woman." (Burqinis are not known to feature masks.)
The Telegraph notes an opposite trend in the UK, where "swimming pools are imposing Muslim dress codes" and gender segregation. Three years ago it was reported that the Croydon council had initiated single-gender sessions adhering to Islamic standards of attire; despite recent claims of backtracking, the Thornton Heath Leisure Centre website still declares that a "strict Islamic dress code applies" during men-only and women-only hours. Similar sessions now have appeared at public pools across Britain, though in many cases the Telegraph states that it is Muslim groups or mosques which organize the swim times.
Let us analyze these stories based on the criteria for accommodating Muslim needs: "Does the desired accommodation infringe on the rights of others? Does it represent a special privilege that would never be extended to non-Muslims? Does it impose an unreasonable burden?":
Inside or outside the pool, we can agree to reasonable accommodations for Muslims that uphold the rights of others. Yet we must reject policies that confer special privileges on Muslims or apply Islamic law to non-Muslims.