Mondays are women’s nights at the Jerusalem Pool, where I swim every day. From the hours of six to nine p.m., this South Jerusalem pool is closed to me simply because I’m a male. On Wednesday nights, women get the same treatment.
Daniel Pipes spends some of his no doubt precious time chronicling swimming pools in North America and Europe that have separate men’s and women’s hours. These pools have instituted separate sex hours to accommodate Muslims, where as in the case of the Jerusalem Pool, it’s to accommodate Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews.
While I’m an Orthodox Jew and value modesty, I don’t restrict myself to separate-sex exercise. I’m often more embarrassed by what I see women (and men) wearing on the street than what I see wearing them at the pool. Modest dress is situational—a Speedo women’s racing suit would be inappropriate dress in a supermarket, but hardly immodest in the water. A string bikini is immodest in the water, too–unless you live in Tel Aviv, in which case you’d wear it grocery shopping 🙂 .
But I respect those who don’t want to see members of the opposite sex in swimwear, and I don’t have a problem with being closed out of my pool once a week. In fact, the Jerusalem Pool has much fewer restrictions on swimming hours than many other pools I’ve swum at, in this and other countries. Other pools I’ve been to not only have hours for men and women, but also separate kids’ hours, swim team, water polo, and what not.
In some of the cases Pipes reports, people were allegedly shut out of pools not just because of separate sex hours, but because they weren’t Muslim. That’s clearly unacceptable. More borderline are the cases in which the separate sex hours also require the swimming sex to dress in accordance with Muslim religious rules on modesty. While on the face of it, this may be an undue and unreasonable restriction, it might be acceptable in places with large Muslim populations.
According to hearsay—I haven’t been able to confirm it—the separate hours at the Jerusalem Pool were instituted in reaction to a ban placed on the pool by ultra-Orthodox rabbis when it first opened decades ago. The rabbis, according to this story, were not upset only by mixed swimming. The pool was also open on the Sabbath. The ban led to some political give-and-take and the current schedule was the result. Such politics is part of life in a democratic society, so I see no problem with devout Muslims lobbying their municipalities to institute separate-sex hours for them.
We should remember that mixed swimming, and modern swimsuit styles, were not always acceptable in the advanced, progressive West (remember the “bathing machines” of Victorian novels, devised to allow women to swim unobserved on British beaches). One of the problems with the modern West is that political freedom has been interpreted to delegitimize any social pressure on people regarding how the dress or behave, so long as it does not cause physical harm to any other human being. But this is not a necessary principle of democracy.
As Eve Grubin points out her amusing blog Modestly Yours, the minute anyone today objects to skimpy dress or wardrobe malfunctions, they get labeled as prudes. As she writes,
if you are disturbed by overly sexual imagery plastered in public areas then you are probably a “prude,” a word which, today, connotes that one disapproves of sex and may not even enjoy it herself.
“Don’t be embarrassed to be embarrassed!” Grubin exclaims. Indeed. Perhaps one thing we can learn from our devout Muslim fellow-citizens is to be a little more concerned about how we dress.