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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — When Zahra Khan arrived at Massachusetts Institute of Technology from her native Ottawa, Canada, in 2005, she looked for a swimming pool where she wouldn’t have to worry about showing too much skin.
The only options were mixed-gender pools, which Khan felt would violate beliefs about modesty grounded in her Muslim faith.
After several starts and stops, she recruited the aid of a sympathetic chaplain, an open-minded athletic director and the campus Jewish group and last fall got her wish: one hour a week, at 9:30 p.m., of female-only swimming.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to be wearing revealing clothing in a mixed environment,” said Khan, who graduated from MIT last year but still buys a pass to use the campus pool. “It’s not just a Muslim issue, it’s a women’s issue.”
With the arrival of summer, millions of Americans ditch their clothes, don their bathing-suits and head for beaches and pools to cool off. But for people like Khan whose religious beliefs discourage mixed-gender swimming, jumping in the pool isn’t quite so simple.
Many Orthodox Jews view mixed-gender swimming as a violation of Jewish laws on Tznuit, or broadly speaking, modesty. Others, including some conservative Pentecostals, see co-ed swimming as a temptation to lust that should always be avoided.
Some vacation resorts in New York’s Catskills region famously cater to Orthodox Jews by providing Kosher-friendly lodgings and gender-separate swimming; and some large and established Orthodox communities operate community centers with gender-separate swimming.
“There’s a wide range of opinion on these things,” said Phil Miller, director of the Jewish Community Center in the Park Heights section of Baltimore, which serves one of the nation’s oldest Orthodox communities, numbering about 20,000. “For much, if not all, of the Orthodox community, it’s seen as a necessary part of what Jewish law asks of a person.”
Miller said at least 75 percent of his pool’s lap hours are single-sex, and they are almost always busy. “I wish I had a second pool,” he said.
Most Orthodox communities, Miller said, are not as established as Baltimore’s, and do not have swimming holes they can call their own.
It’s a similar problem faced by Muslims, many of whom also avoid mixed-swimming, but lack the organizational or financial heft to construct their own swimming pools and gyms. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re not convincing institutions to find ways to accommodate them.
Lul Abdulla, a Somali immigrant in Portland, Ore., asked city officials last year to set up female-only swimming at a public pool.
Would female-only swimming somehow show support of religious activity?
Not if the pool were open to any woman, regardless of belief, Abdulla said. What about labor laws that require gender parity in employment?
Have male lifeguards staff a men-only swim, she said.
Lisa Turpel, the outreach director for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, said disappointingly few women — Muslim and non-Muslim — had taken advantage of the Saturday afternoon female-only swims.
“We’re hoping that with summer and school being out that we’ll get more people,” she said. “People think of swimming as a summer thing.”
It was the ultimate summer thing for J. Stephen Conn, a retired pastor and avid swimmer who spent his childhood at church camps where boys and girls swam in the lake at different times.
“You didn’t dare cast a glance over at the swimming area when the girls were there,” said Conn, 64, and author of “Growing up Pentecostal.” “And as a young man with raging hormones, I can see the point.”
Conn said he gradually came to believe the prohibition on mixed-gender swimming was cultural, not Scriptural. That’s why he ignored rules on swimming times as a Church of God pastor in Augusta, Ga., in the 1980s, raising the ire of church leaders who told him to stick to the rules, or leave. He left and joined the Assemblies of God.
“The issue is not mixed-swimming, but lust. If it incites lust in your heart, then stay away, by all means. If it’s no big deal, go and swim,” Conn said. “What incites lust in one person may not incite lust in another.”
Khan, the MIT graduate, said female-only swimming is critical for many Muslim women, especially immigrants, who might not otherwise have an opportunity to learn how to swim or have access to exercise classes.
And what’s the big deal, she asks, pointing to gyms like Curves or Health Works that offer female-only exercise.
After her long battle to get MIT to offer female-only swimming, Khan is again looking for a place to swim since the campus pool is closed until classes resume in the fall.
“For now,” she said, “I don’t have a place to swim.”
By OMAR SACIRBEY
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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