Religious Accommodation Makes Waves

George Washington University's female-only swim hour, designed to meet the needs of Muslim students, is generating widespread debate.
November 9, 2010

Colleges strive to create welcoming, inclusive communities for students from every background. But a new effort at George Washington University has scores of critics and supporters abuzz with heated comments that continue to pour in on various blogs and news articles.

At the request of the university’s Muslim Students’ Association, George Washington began offering a once-weekly, female-only swim hour in March. But it only recently turned into an online debate over issues of religious and sexual discrimination and -- though not always explicitly -- racism, spurred by an article in the student newspaper, The GW Hatchet.

The Lerner Health and Wellness Center pool closes to men for one of the 20 hours it’s open each week, with a tarp blocking the view through the glass door and a female lifeguard on duty. The university declined to comment for this article beyond a two-sentence statement that said its officials are reviewing the closure while they establish a formal recreational swim policy.

A few highlights from Internet comments on The Washington Post's and TBD’s recent coverage of the swim hour: “Should a minuscule minority force the overwhelming majority [to] abide by their rules or should it be the other way around?” “Western society should not accommodate to Islam on this point; it is Islam that should change.” And in rebuttal: “Come on, folks. An hour a week -- what's the big deal?” “It's not an unreasonable request. ‘Women’ is like *half* the population.”

Many comments not quoted here could easily be considered racially offensive.

Despite the naysayers, Sisters’ Splash, as it’s called, is not the only special accommodation that a college has made for Muslim students. George Washington already has foot baths for pre-prayer rituals, and a handful of other institutions -- including the University of Michigan-Dearborn and George Mason University -- have them as well. In 2008, at the request of female Muslim students, Harvard University ran a one-semester pilot program that reserved six hours a week for female students only at one of its lesser-used gyms, though the program was discontinued after that semester. There's also Gamma Gamma Chi Sorority Inc., an Islamic-based sorority that has five regional chapters, though not all are active.

Shelley Mountjoy, a doctoral student at George Mason who briefly attended George Washington as an undergraduate, doesn’t much care what goes on at private colleges. But she takes issue with the foot baths at George Mason and with other religious accommodations at public universities. She is afraid that policies like the female-only swim hour will have a domino effect and spread to other colleges. “I don’t want my tuition dollars paying to accommodate somebody’s religion,” she said. “It’s not the entire campus’s religion. We don’t all have to subscribe to Islamic law.”

Because George Washington is a private university, there are no constitutional issues with the swim hour, said Ayesha N. Khan, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. 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 said.

Mountjoy, who serves on the boards of Atheist Alliance International and the national Secular Student Alliance, is also the founder and president of the Secular Student Alliance chapter at George Mason. She said that although some criticism of the swim hour and other services might stem from a bias against Muslim people, she takes issue with any type of religious accommodation. “I actually think that it’s in everybody’s best interest to keep religion out of our public schools,” she said. “I would react the same if this was a Christian-only swimming hour."

Students say the criticism is mostly coming from off-campus. Shaeera Tariq, a sophomore at George Washington and vice president of the Muslim Students' Association, helped initiate the swim hour. She said nobody really knew about it until the Hatchet article came out -- and as it happens, she is a reporter at the paper and she pitched the article to her editor. "It definitely sparked a lot of debate amongst people, but it seems to me there is a definite positive sentiment on campus and people are in favor of it," she said. "We're not closing down the mall or something for an hour. We're just closing down a pool that wasn't used very often in the first place."

John L. Esposito, an Islamic studies professor and founding director of Georgetown University's Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, said many of the negative reactions undoubtedly stem from an “Islamophobia.”

“It’s very clear that there’s a good chance many of them have a real problem accepting Muslims or Islam, and we’ve got to deal with that. In a pluralistic society, that form of bigotry and racism -- we’ve dealt with it before and we’ve got to deal with it now,” Esposito said, referring to civil rights struggles. “It seems to me this is a perfectly understandable thing that we should be doing. All of these members of the community pay tuition and so faculty and administrators have to always be open to responding to and accommodating the needs of people.”

Esposito cited numerous other ways institutions serve different groups: parking for people with disabilities, campus chapels for various religions, and excusing attendance for students celebrating religious holidays other than the traditionally recognized Christmas or Easter. “If there’s a segment of the community that can benefit from an accommodation, you make it when you can,” he said. “The fact is, they have rights and you have to accept it.”

Zahin Hasan, president of the Muslim Students’ Association, said the number of women -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- who attend the swim hour varies. But the point is that the college is serving more students, better. “What I can't understand is how utilizing an underused service, such as a gym pool, is a bad thing,” Hasan said in an e-mail. “Very few people know about the pool, and even fewer use it. The benefits of Sisters' Splash far outweigh the few inconveniences it may present.” But, he added, a “great majority” of George Washington students have shown support for the swim hour.

According to a 2005 Gallup report, gender inequality is one of American women’s top concerns about “the Muslim or Islamic world.” (Notably, many Muslim women perceive the promiscuity, pornography and public indecency portrayed in Hollywood images as mistreatment of women in the Western world, the report says.) It’s an issue that is mentioned frequently in online comments about the swim hour. One person wrote, “If Muslim women are too modest to wear ordinary swimsuits when they swim, then maybe they should stop swimming and go see a psychiatrist. Teaching sexual repression is wrong; making women feel that they are bad and wicked merely for having female bodies is wrong.” Another wrote, “If because of religious convictions they chose not to exercise that freedom, the rest of society should not validate it by accommodating it.”

(Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version.)

But the swim hour’s proponents -- and there seem to be many -- point out that about half of the student population can participate. And accusations of racism are not difficult to come by. “We’ve seen a number of these kinds of programs around the country. I think it goes way beyond Muslim women; I think there are enough women who would be more comfortable swimming in a same-sex environment that it would be of interest to women of all faiths in America,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “There is a cottage industry of Muslim-bashers that look for any opportunity to marginalize American Muslims or to demonize Islam, and any denomination of Islam in our society is going to be targeted by these people.”

There is more to the issue than religion, though. Erin E. Buzuvis, an associate professor of law at Western New England College and co-founder and contributor to The Title IX Blog, said it's unclear whether barring men from the pool constitutes a violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the law requiring gender equity in educational programs at federally funded schools and colleges. Men can still swim 95 percent of the time, so they're not completely excluded. And if the program's purpose is to accommodate a religious group, rather than women in general, that could work in the university's favor.

"The university might have a plausible defense that while this would technically be a form of gender discrimination, that they're doing it to accommodate a student's religion," Buzuvis said. "If that weren't an issue, I would say a female-only swim hour would be highly questionable under Title IX."


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