NEW YORK — Three times a week Gloria D. comes to the Metropolitan Swimming Pool during women-only hours to swim. As a Hasidic woman she is bound by Orthodox religious law which prohibits women from bathing or swimming in front of men.
But her time at the indoor public pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn may soon end. Several weeks ago a caller left an anonymous complaint with the New York City Commission of Human Rights. The commission subsequently warned the pool its gender-segregated hours might violate civil rights and is now investigating the issue.
“I was in a terrible shock. If this closes I will be a lost soul,” said Gloria D, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her privacy. “Everyone needs a little exercise. It’s literally for our health; so many who come here are seniors — seniors with arthritis, or even polio.”
While the commission looks into the situation, the New York City Parks Department has decided to uphold the women-only swimming hours which were established nearly 30 years ago to accommodate the neighborhood’s large Hasidic Jewish community.
“Quite a number of women called the office genuinely upset,” New York Assembly Member Dov Hikind said. “They worried they were going to lose their opportunity to swim locally. For them there is no choice. If you can’t swim separately from men, you’re not going swimming.”
Hikind said the decision was victory for human rights, allowing religious women equal access to public services. And while men are barred from using the pool during those hours, it doesn’t prohibit women of any race, religion, or sexual orientation from using the pool.
“The Constitution permits reasonable accommodation. You need to ask ‘Does this accommodation really take away from the general public?’” Hikind said.
In the US, the Metropolitan isn’t alone in offering women-only hours. Pools in Seattle and St. Louis Park, outside Minneapolis, have separate swim times. In Israel it’s a wide-spread practice in all communities.
And here at the Metropolitan it’s not only Orthodox Jewish women who want the hours upheld, Gloria D. said. Muslim women, Chinese women, Hispanic women, and secular women come to swim between 9:15 am and 11 am.
Still, while some like Hikind hailed the decision, albeit a temporary one, as a triumph of equal opportunity, others were not so inclined.
According to a recent New York Times editorial the decision to uphold the gender-segregated hours does chip away civil rights, stating that the city’s human rights law stipulates that public accommodations such as swimming pools can’t prohibit people based on gender. And while there can be exemptions for “bona fide considerations of public policy,” the editorial said that this case “with its strong odor of religious intrusion into a secular space does not seem bona fide at all.”
Hikind called the editorial “mean spirited.” He also said he found the Times’ stance puzzling since it ran a story in February praising officials in Toronto for arranging women-only swimming hours at a public pool to accommodate Muslim population.
‘Women-only hours for Muslim women was great, but not for Jewish women?’
“So allowing women-only hours for Muslim women was great but it wasn’t for Jewish women? The challenge of being a liberal, progressive… is understanding people’s differences,” Hikind said.
No one from the human rights commission agreed to be interviewed for this story.
However, in an interview with WNYC last Thursday, Mayor Bill DeBlasio said “it’s a very real issue and to say the least a complex one.”
“I am working with the Human Rights Commission and the Parks Department to determine what makes sense to do here. This goes far beyond the question of the Metropolitan Pool and the way that specific program was configured. There are much bigger issues here that we have to resolve, and Human Rights and Parks Department are going back and forth,” DeBlasio said.
“I can safely say we’ll have something to say very soon on it, and we’re absolutely concerned about equity and making sure that folks who want to use the pool have maximum opportunity,” he continued. “But I want to be clear, there are some bigger issues here than this narrow experience that’s happening in Williamsburg, and we have to make sense of those. So, soon coming.”
Rabbi David Niederman, director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, recently called the women-only hours essential.
Gloria D. agreed.
“We are not trying to impose our morals on anybody. We are not only Jewish people swimming here,” she said. “Everybody is able to wear what they wish. We are just women who want to swim without men.”