The Halifax Chronicle Herald (Canada)
Aquatic centre’s windows pose problem for Muslim women
Group that has rented Northcliffe for years needs privacy because of religious beliefs
By MICHAEL LIGHTSTONE Staff Reporter and MONIQUE MUISE
Depending on your perspective, they can be functional, beautiful or problematic.
The new aquatic centre at Halifax’s planned $40.5-million Mainland Common Centre will include two 25-metre pools and lots of big windows designed to handle natural and artificial light.
For one user group — Muslim women who like to swim — the window configuration at the centre is a concern, municipal officials familiar with the project said Friday.
That’s because modesty and privacy are paramount for these religious women.
"They are certainly on the radar in terms of making sure that whatever we do, we’re able to accommodate" that element of the Muslim community, municipal staffer John Henry said.
Most users of metro’s public swimming pools aren’t bound by their religious beliefs to preserve their modesty while getting some exercise in private.
But in the Clayton Park area of Halifax, a multicultural district with a sizable Muslim population, female followers of Islam face more complicated pool preparation, in their desire to keep fit, than their non-Muslim counterparts.
And windows play a crucial role for Muslim women who want to be able to splash in the water while following their faith.
"We have been familiar with the issue since the beginning of the (Mainland Common) project and will be addressing it in our detailed design," architect David Rickard told The Chronicle Herald in an e-mail message.
"There will be lots of glass to help promote the aquatics centre as a vibrant and active space, and this is obviously the opposite of the Muslim women’s requirements." Muslim women who have been swimming at the municipally owned Northcliffe Centre pool have taken steps to protect themselves from compromising their principles.
Their body-covering swimwear accommodates the tenets of Islam, and during private sessions the swimmers pay a rental fee and pool windows are temporarily covered to guard their privacy.
Parents of swimming students and other visitors at the Northcliffe site may look through three medium-size windows at a small viewing area to the right of the building’s main entrance. Tarpaulins are used to temporarily block this view.
Mr. Henry, the municipality’s aquatic services co-ordinator, said the Muslim women — up to 50 — have been booking the pool for weekly swim sessions for years. He said they reserve an hour of pool time, at a cost of about $55, and are provided with female lifeguards.
There’s a group of Muslim men who swim at Northcliffe, too, said Mr. Henry, but they don’t require any special considerations from pool management or staff.
Blocking pool windows from public view could prove somewhat more challenging once Northcliffe is shut down and users shift to pools at the proposed Mainland Common Centre.
A proposed solution — the use of large, mechanized blinds — won’t be cheap, said municipal councillors who represent the area. "To cover the pool windows with this type of automatic blind will be costly, probably in the thousands of dollars," Coun. Mary Wile (Clayton Park West) said via e-mail.
"I have asked for an estimate and (I’m) hoping we will be able to get a sponsor who will consider providing funds for these blinds, in lieu of an acknowledgment of their contribution."
Northcliffe swimmer Dayga Shariff said Saturday the women’s pool program is open to participants of other backgrounds, not just Muslims.
But the indoor program is crucial for female followers of the faith because their religion requires Muslim women to cover up in public places, such as ocean beaches and lakefront areas.
"I think swimming is very important," Ms. Shariff said in an interview. "In Islamic traditional teachings, it is one of the most important sports that we should learn and that we should teach our kids."
Ms. Shariff said she goes swimming at Northcliffe with her two daughters, 15 and 10, and they intend to continue the activity at the planned Mainland Common site. She said Muslim women from other parts of metro also take part in the program.
"We are taxpayers, and we should have services like everyone else. I think the (new) facility should be inclusive . . . whether it’s for women, or Muslims, or people with disabilities," Ms. Shariff said.
In North America, the concept of municipalities and other organizations helping user groups abide by the rules of their religion is not unique. The Seattle Times in 2005 reported on special swim sessions that area Muslim women book at a community pool. One Saturday each month, the windows are temporarily covered and only female lifeguards are on duty, the newspaper reported.
Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., implemented a pilot project earlier this year in which one of its gyms was off limits to men for six hours per week. The policy was put in place to accommodate Muslim women who wanted to exercise in private.
In Halifax, construction of the 176,000-square-foot Mainland Common Centre is to begin this fall. Halifax Regional Municipality will close Northcliffe around the time the new fitness and recreation complex opens.
Mr. Henry said female Muslim swimmers at Northcliffe who have been swimming on Saturday evenings require that "a small viewing area of windows" be covered during their time in the pool.
"We have been blocking off the windows with paper or bags or whatever . . . so folks coming into the facility wouldn’t be able to see straight through," he said.
Ms. Wile and Mr. Rickard, the architect, said the Mainland Common Centre will not ignore the needs of the local Muslim community.
"We have already spoken to (Ms.) Wile about some specific fundraising needed since it will probably mean an extensive use of motorized blackout blinds to the glass inside and out" the proposed aquatic centre, Mr. Rickard said in his e-mail note.
Ms. Shariff said she’s hopeful public awareness of the women’s swimming program will encourage municipal officials to consider their needs when it comes to building the aquatic centre.
But if something should happen to make it impossible for Muslim women to use the planned pools, she said, they’ll have very few options.
"They will just not go swimming," Ms. Shariff said.