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Extra Swim Class At City Heights YMCA Becomes Gender, Immigrant Issue

With summer now in full swing, San Diegans are heading to beaches and pools to cool off and get exercise. But for East-African women in City Heights, taking a dip isn’t so easy. Many of them are Muslim and can’t swim in co-ed pools. But that’s changing. Megan Burks of our media partner, Speak City Heights, tells us how some residents and their local YMCA are getting Muslim women in the water and active this summer. (Video by Katie Euphrat)

We're sorry. This audio clip is no longer available. A transcript has been made available.

USD Professor on Swim Class

Dr. Adina Batnitzky, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of San Diego, talks to KPBS about a women-only swim class.

Statement from the Copley Family YMCA

“At the Y, we recognize that for communities to succeed, everyone must be given the opportunity to be healthy, confident, connected and secure. This swim program at our Y does just that. It fulfills all three areas of our focus, Healthy Living, Youth Development and Social Responsibility.

The swim program is designed to allow women in our City Heights community to have the opportunity to get in the water with their children, learn to swim and stay active in an environment they find comfortable in. At the Y, we believe it is our social responsibility to give back and support our neighbors.

The program takes place outside of the normal Copley Family YMCA business hours and therefore does not exclude the public because nobody else would be using the facility at the time it takes place.

The Copley Family YMCA has been teaching children and adults to swim for over 50 years. Our lessons are taught by experienced, certified instructors and focus on improving swim strokes, building character values, and having fun in the water. We welcome all and have a wide-range of aquatic programs to suit everyone’s needs.”

Leticia Leos

Executive Director

Copley Family YMCA

Commenters responded swiftly and often viciously to a story by KPBS media partner Speak City Heights on a women-only swim class for Muslims at the Copley YMCA in City Heights.

Many decried the YMCA for discrimination because men weren’t allowed in the class. But Megan Burks, the author of the story, told KPBS Midday Edition the classes were held after hours, when the YMCA wouldn’t normally have been open.

“So they're not kicking out members who would have been there already,” she said.

Burks said the YMCA does get public money, but that the funds “typically go to youth services and childcare services, so it's not really for the operation of the recreation.”

California Western assistant visiting professor Andrea Freeman explained that not allowing someone to attend a class is not discrimination in a legal sense.

When asked under what circumstances a class like this would violate antidiscrimination laws, Freeman replied, “there aren't any.”

Adina Batnitzky, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of San Diego, said the debate over discrimination “gets away from the important issue.”

“Yes this is an issue of inclusion and diversity, but it’s also an issue of public health,” she said. “We want to get these women moving.”

Batnitzky said Islam has doctrines about modesty that apply to both men and women, which is what keeps the women from participating in a co-ed swim class. She added that because many of the women are East African, they are at higher risk for hypertension and diabetes.

But, she said, a community effort to exercise can counteract that risk.

“We know that communities that come together, particularly ethnic minority communities, it can either have a negative effect, reinforcing bad behavior, or in this context, I applaud these women for taking their health into their own hands and working out,” she said.

Batnitzky said she thinks the response to the story was so harsh “because they’re Muslim women.”

“We talk the talk in terms of embracing diversity, but when it comes to actually practicing diversity, we don’t actually do a very good job,” she said. “If this had been a Christian women’s all-swim hour, we wouldn’t have issues.”

Commenters also argued the women-only class slowed assimilation for the Muslim women. But Batnitzky disagreed.

“America prides itself in being a country where everybody can feel comfortable,” she said. “People don’t need to change their religion and culture in order to be an American.”

“If anything, it’s a wonderful story of these immigrants going to the Young Men Christian Association—is there anything more American than that—and taking their health into their own hands and going to a community center,” she added. “They’re being wonderful role models for their children, taking care of their own bodies, it’s something we should be promoting.”


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