WASHINGTON – Since late October, for a few hours every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, a small group of women has gathered at the Columbia Swim Center and has taken advantage of a time dedicated for them and only them.
The swim center, located in Wilde Lake Village Center in Columbia, Md., began holding women-only swim times in response to a community request.
Shallah Khan wanted to join her daughters at their swim lessons and be able to honor her Islamic heritage, which requires women be fully covered in front of men.
Khan says she felt uncomfortable at the pool in full dress and wearing her hijab.
On Oct. 25, the organization began a trial period for women-only swim.
“We created it because it seemed to make good sense for us,” says Bob Bellamy, sport and division director of the Columbia Association.
The group’s decision to institute a women-only swim time has been met with some controversy by individuals who feel the organization is catering to one particular faith, he says.
“This is inclusive of religion but it also potentially makes good business sense for us to have all women, not just Muslim faith women, to have the opportunity to get involved,” Bellamy says.
For the last 10 years, the organization has offered women-only gyms at its fitness facilities.
“There are a lot of women for a variety of reasons would prefer not to exercise in front of men,” Bellamy says. “They’re either exercise shy or they feel intimidated by some of the free-weight goons. They don’t want to be out there on the exercise floor in a co-ed fashion.”
The women-only gyms have been hugely successful, he says.
He points to the success of other women-only gyms, such as Curves.
Last year, George Washington University began offering a once-weekly, female-only swim hour following a request by the school’s Muslim Students’ Association. That decision also was met with a great deal of controversy.
The Baltimore Sun reports women-only swim times are not uncommon. Several private universities, including Harvard, provide for the special hours, along with pools in New York City, Toronto and Seattle.
Like other pools around the country, the Columbia all-women swim usually involves covering the pool door’s glass windows with paper and a female lifeguard.
Attendance at the women-only swim is still sparse, however. In the three weeks since it began, about six to eight women have come to take advantage of the same-sex swimming hours.
Bellamy says an average of 10 people would make the program worthwhile.
He says the swim club will extend the trial period through February, since exercise routines tend to pick up after the holidays.
An Ellicott City mosque has been hosting women-only hours at a swim center in Jessup since the summer, where its rents out the pool from 8:30 to 9:45 p.m. every Thursday.
Shabana Ahmed, who helps helps with the “Sister’s Swim Club,” says the swim time was popular during the summer months, but now that school is in session, attendance has dropped.
“Swimming is something that everybody enjoys doing, but because of our dress code of dressing modestly it’s a little harder of us to find times and locations to swim comfortably,” Ahmed says.
She was excited to hear about another opportunity for women to enjoy same-sex swim hours.
As for Khan, she is thrilled that she was able to help her daughter during swim lessons the other day.
She is looking forward to the day she will be taking lessons with other women.
“I’m not a swimmer at all but after all this I will learn swimming too,” Khan says.