A gender-specific swim program developed by Muslim women in Tukwila has seen a flood of public support in response to a human rights complaint filed against it by a local couple.
A community meeting about public pool policy might not sound too exciting.
But the Monday meeting of the Tukwila Metropolitan Park District was packed this week, with 40 women from Muslim, white, Latino and Asian communities around South King County.
They’d turned out in support of a women-only swim program at the Tukwila public pool, which is facing a complaint of gender-based discrimination to the Washington Human Rights Commission.
In the crowd were the two Somali-born sisters who dreamed up the program three years ago.
Jamila Farole, 28, who recently earned her Masters in social work, and her sister Faisa Farole, 33, who is studying to be a midwife, had the idea to rent out the pool so that the women in their Muslim community could exercise indoors in a space they felt comfortable — without men present.
When the sisters approached swim coach Malcolm Neely, he happily complied, allowing the women to rent the pool for two hours each week, with a female lifeguard and the windows covered to respect the privacy of women inside from outside viewers.
The gender-specific swim became increasingly popular among the large Muslim community in Tukwila, and attracted women from as far away as Bellevue and Burien who preferred to swim in a female-only space.
“It is a place to socialize… we invite our family members to come because we don’t see them during the week”, said Jamila, laughing as her sister describes the hilarity of a group of adults — many who are learning to swim for the first time — splashing around in T-shirts in the shallow end.
When Amy Kindell took over as Aquatics Specialist at the Tukwila Pool this past summer, she saw an opportunity to make the women-only swim a permanent, publicly-funded part of the pool’s regular programming.
“We were just responding to the community demand”, says Kindell, who collaborated with the Global to Local Health Initiative, in place to support communities in SeaTac and Tukwila facing barriers to healthy food and exercise. “It’s been really cool to see the community come out and use the pool… it’s a joy to see.”
Though Kindell sees the program as “absolutely in line” with city goals to promote access, not everyone in the Tukwila community has been so enthusiastic about it.
In recent meetings of the Tukwila City Council, some community members active in the group Sustain Tukwila Pool (founded in 2011 to protect the pool from budget cuts) expressed concerns that the program violates the separation of church and state.
At a November 4th meeting Jacqueline Carroll took the stand and tearfully voiced her opposition to the gender-specific swim.
“It is hard to stomach to fact that our community would choose to re-instate gender segregation,” said Carroll, who noted that supporters of the program were mostly Muslim and many were not residents of Tukwila. “Just because this young woman does not like the tenet of her religion that requires her to don specific garb at a mixed gender swim, it is not a reason for my tax dollars be used to meet her religious beliefs.”
Tukwila City Councilmember Dennis Robertson noted that he had apprehensions about the program on similar grounds.
“I grew up in the south where segregation was real,” said Robertson, a 67 year-old retired Information Systems Manager at Boeing who is currently serving his fifth term on the council. He says he worried that gender-specific programs might be “a step backwards” and “an emotional red flag” for women who feared discrimination or barriers to access.
On November 7th those sentiments were taken further when Tukwila couple Robert and Christine Neuffer filed a formal complaint with the Washington Human Rights Commission citing gender-based discrimination, based on Robert being denied entry into the pool during the women-only swim hours.
The full details of the complaint have not been released, but Neuffer shared his concerns in a telephone conversation on Wednesday.
“When you separate males and females, it is usually designed to make females less of a person,” said Neuffer, who hopes that the program will return to being privately funded. “This whole concept here is that when women and men are separated, we lose touch with each other, eventually. It is bad for the women, and then it is bad for the men.”
Neuffer points to the religious nature of the program, but says he’s not against Islam.
“I’m a first amendment nut,” he asserted, “but I do not have to defend beliefs that make women less than human beings. I’ve seen it abroad, and I don’t want it here”.
“We had people from the Ethiopian community, the Latino community, even the Caucasian community coming to swim with us… There are a lot of women who want this service,” said Jamila reflecting on the controversy. “It’s not like we are trying to bring Sharia law into a secular society.”
If it goes through, the Neuffers’ claim will be unprecedented. According to Brian Snure, a lawyer for the Tukwila Metropolitan Park District, there is no previous example of any such human rights complaint around gender-specific programs in public pools across the country. A case in Pennsylvania concerning a private women’s only gym was overturned, on the basis that men and women have differences that might require different health facilities.
Indeed, Kindell didn’t seem concerned about restricting certain people from a class, since it mirrored many of the other specific classes offered for teens, or families. A men’s-only swim is currently also offered, though less attended.
When asked about the concerns regarding gender-specific swim, Faisa and Jamila said they couldn’t understand the opposition.
“It’s nonsensical,” said Faisa. “It makes you think, this is more than about just a gender-specific swim.”
The move toward gender-specific swim hours, and exercise in general, is hardly unique to Muslims — or Tukwila. Similar programs are already popular in places in Seattle where Somali refugee populations live, though some have had to navigate anti-discrimination policies that require that all gender-specific programs be private rentals.
Last March, Childrens Hospital released a statement advocating for gender-specific swims, citing drowning as a leading cause of death in ethnic communities.
Outgoing Mayor Mike McGinn recently announced that the City of Seattle will begin offering gender-specific swim opportunities at four public swimming pools to serve women who, because of cultural, personal or religious reasons, cannot swim in a co-ed environment. Similar programs have been established in pools across the country.
In Seward Park, women from the Orthodox Jewish community organized to request a similar swim at the Rainier Beach pool, which for a time was privately funded. During construction of the new pool and community center in 2010, however, focus groups conducted by the City of Seattle brought in a “unanimous” sentiment from the Jewish, African-American, Asian, and Latino communities to offer regular programming for gender-specific swim, according to Sarah Gortler, a Seward Park resident.
Tukwila City Councilmember Verna Seal says she was stunned by the support for the program that she witnessed at the park district meeting on Monday.
“I have never seen such an outpouring for anything, during my time on the council,” she said. “It was amazing.”
A smaller opposition group included Christine Neuffer, who stated her continuing concerns about the program, requesting it be privately funded.
Her husband Robert Neuffer was not present. But the Washington Human Rights Commission says it is still processing his complaint, and can’t yet confirm a timeline for response.
As of now, the program is slated to continue, and will be expanded in January to include weekday gender-specific swims for nearby Foster High School P.E. classes, which are already separated by gender.
Following the testimonies Monday, the council went into executive session and emerged unanimously in support of the program.
Councilmember Robertson, who was originally skeptical of the program, says Monday’s testimonies impacted his opinion on the issue.
“It took awhile…a little listening,” he said, remarking on the power of seeing the community come together over this issue and seeing many community members testifying publicly for the first time.
“I wish I would have thought it through more before opening my mouth.”
The post has been updated. A previous version stated that both Robert and Christine Neuffer are part of “Sustain Tukwila Pool.” Robert Neuffer is not affiliated with the group.