CAIRO – A decision by some Swedish municipal pools to offer special women-only swimming hours has stirred debates in the country which welcomed thousands of refugees last year;, while some reacted against the decision, others praised it for accommodating Muslim women.
“Our facilities are used by 40 percent women and 60 percent men,” Johan Hermansson, the head of Malmö’s recreations department, told TV4, Christian Science Monitor reported.
“Our ambition is for them to be used equally by girls and boys, men and women.”
For decades, Swedish city swimming pools have operated mixed-gender pools, but by adding women-only hours, officials are hoping to accommodate the country’s growing Muslim population.
When the refugee crisis erupted last year, some 10,000 asylum seekers were arriving each week in Sweden during October and November.
In a bid to accommodate new comers, 13 of Sweden’s 100 largest municipalities have begun offering separate swimming hours for men and women, according to a survey by the Swedish TV channel TV4.
This development has been criticized by some as contradicting with the country’s hard-earned traditions of gender equality.
“During the past several years, we’ve had several Muslim women come and swim,” says Stockholm resident Carolina Johansson, who has been regular on women’s-only sessions at a local swimming pool for the past 20 years.
“But gender-separated swimming doesn’t feel like a positive development.”
Iva Parizkova Ryggeståhl, a member of the local International Women’s Association, said her group opposed it.
“Men who are not comfortable being in the same swimming pool as women should not be there,” Parizkova Ryggeståhl argued.
“And we women shouldn’t care whether men are looking at us in the swimming pool or not, and whether they get jealous or not.”
Rendering clear support to the gender-segregated swimming pools, the Sweden’s feminist party, Feministiskt Initiativ, maintained that women-only swimming benefit women in general.
“It’s not just Muslim women who want women-only swimming hours; it’s women from many different backgrounds,” argues Toktam Jahangiry, Feministiskt Initiativ’s sexual policy spokeswoman.
“For example, many women who have had a mastectomy don’t feel comfortable being seen by men in the swimming pool.”
Feministiskt Initiativ also suggests that women-only swimming hours could serve a social purpose beyond health and exercise.
“Swimming pools are a meeting place for women where they feel comfortable talking to one another, and women-only swimming hours make it an even better meeting point,” Jahangiry said.
“A woman who is being beaten by her husband won’t want other men to see her bruises in the swimming pool. But she will feel comfortable talking to other women about it there.”
Qaali Shire, a Muslim Somali mother of three, who lives in Malmö and was recently granted asylum, agreed.
“Women’s swimming hours are very good because there are no private swimming pools for women,” she said.
“Without separate pools or swimming hours, women would go to the pool with their husbands and kids and just sit because they don’t feel comfortable swimming in front of men.”
Shire was in high spirits after having visited the women’s swimming hour.
“The ladies’ session is always jammed,” she noted.
In contrast to Sweden’s integration debate, she said that female sessions would allow more integration.
“Because everyone’s head is uncovered, you don’t know who is Muslim and who is not,” she said.