Muslim Students’ Female-Only Swim at GWU Makes Waves

Allie Grasgreen, USA Today, Nov. 10, 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.

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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.”

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