Women-only swim times spark emotional debate
In one of the region’s most diverse cities, a dust-up over women-only swim times at the Tukwila Pool recently led to uncomfortable conversations about gender and religion, also raising questions about whether such a policy could withstand a legal challenge.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A 90-minute time slot on Sunday afternoons, when women can swim at a public pool in Tukwila removed from men, has led to some awkward conversations around gender and religion in one of the region’s most diverse cities.
In recent months, some Tukwila residents and City Council members have raised concerns that the women-only swims amount to gender inequality — with some going as far as to call it reminiscent of the Jim Crow era of separate accommodations.
When pool staff introduced the special swim this past summer, they also set aside swim time for men, ensuring the city would be on firm legal footing, although the male-only slot is seeing low attendance.
It all came to a head last week when about 40 people attended a sometimes emotional meeting of the Tukwila Pool Metropolitan Park District to urge commissioners, who are also the City Council members, to keep the gender-separate swims — even though there was no specific proposal on the table to end it.
On any given Sunday, around 30 women use the pool — their reasons ranging from body image to their religion’s mandate for modesty.
One woman told commissioners at the meeting: “I’m considered brash and forward, but when I strip down to my swimsuit, I’m not: I’m old, I’m fat and things hang.”
Another, Jamila Farole, 28, a Muslim woman who along with four of her sisters began renting the pool three years ago so they and other women could swim in privacy, said “there’s a huge demand and need for female-only swim time.”
The lone opposing voice at that night’s meeting came from a member of Sustain Tukwila Pool, a group that came together two years ago to rescue the facility from closure.
Saying she was not speaking for that group, Jacque Carroll said she wants city officials to consider whether separating women represents their “further marginalization.”
“I’m concerned that launching evermore segregation of women in our society will cause women to be more marginalized than they are right now,” she said.
A difficult balance
This flare-up over swim times speaks to a broader challenge city officials in Tukwila and other communities face in balancing the sometimes special needs of an increasingly diverse population against those of the general public.
Eight pools in King County — three owned by the city of Seattle — have women-only swim times, although Tukwila appears to be alone in also offering a program for men. And it may be the first place, at least around here, where such a policy has been publicly questioned and legally challenged.
Earlier this month, a resident filed a gender-discrimination complaint with the state Human Rights Commission (HRC), challenging not the women’s swim time at the Tukwila pool but the men-only component, after she said she was unable to accompany and supervise her 11-year-old son there.
Last Thursday, the HRC closed the complaint, saying that since the pool offers swim times for both women and men, no gender discrimination exists under state law. The pool also offers swim times for families.
Although the ruling clears Tukwila, it raises a legal question for other cities and programs that offer women-only swims without a male-only option.
Laura Lindstrand, policy analyst for the Human Rights Commission, said it’s possible such a facility could be in violation of state law. “We would need to closely look at the facility’s reasoning for having such a policy,” she said.
Issue of faith for some
But such legal matters were far from the minds of the more than two dozen women — many dressed in the Islamic hijab — and a handful of men as they spoke emotionally to commissioners in Tukwila about how they and their families use the pool.
“This isn’t just something I’m doing,” Farole said. “ It’s a commandment from God; men and women are not to mix together. That’s my religious belief.”
She said the women, who had been sharing the rental cost of $156 each time they used the pool over the last three years, were elated when park-district staff incorporated the women swim times into the regular pool program.
But they began to worry it might not survive after an October meeting when a representative of Seattle Children’s hospital made a presentation about the importance of knowing how to swim, citing drowning rates for both adults and children.
At that meeting, Councilmember Dennis Robertson said while he understood the need for the single-gender swim times, city officials needed to be careful not to contribute to gender inequality. “It’s not what this country is about,” he said.
The arguments being used to support single-gender swim times were used to justify racial segregation in the South, he said. “We are walking on dangerous grounds here,” he said.
Carroll, who also spoke, echoed that position.
Their comments worried Farole and the other women who at last week’s meeting submitted petitions bearing 132 signatures defending the program.
“For the first time as a resident I felt unwelcome,” Farole said.
But after listening to the women, Robertson appeared to be walking back his earlier position on the women-only swim times.
While he pointed out that many business deals historically have been made in settings where women have been denied access, Robertson said it’s clear this is not one of those settings.
“It’s easy to jump to conclusions, and I jumped to the conclusion about what this might mean,” he said.
Reason for optimism
Carroll said her main concern is that young Muslim women feel they cannot be safe around men in a community where she lives.
“If I was convinced we were initiating women-only swims to empower women, I would be very happy about it,” she said. “But I fear that we are just introducing the 21st-century version of more marginalization.”
In the end, there appeared to be reason for optimism, from all sides.
Commissioners announced the single-gender swims would continue at the pool, and Carroll and some of the women and men discussed their differences.
While they likely remain on opposite sides on this policy, Carroll invited them to attend a Saturday meeting of the Sustain Tukwila Pool group.
And some of them said they just might take her up on it.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @turnbullL.