Extra Swim Class At City Heights YMCA Becomes Gender, Immigrant Issue
CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition is one that's provoked one comment on our website than just about any story we've covered. It centers around a special swim class started at the request of Muslim women at the Copley YMCA in City Heights. What started out as a relatively simple human interest story has unleashed some deep feelings about equity, assimilation, and how far public institutions should go to accommodate cultural diversity. Megan Burks is editor of Speak can have City Heights. BURKS: Thanks for having me. CAVANAUGH: Dr. Adina Batnitzky is assistant professor of sociology at the university of San Diego. BATNITZKY: Great to be here. CAVANAUGH: And Andrea Freeman, welcome. FREEMAN: Thank you. CAVANAUGH: It's been almost two weeks since your story was aired on KPBS television and on the website. But from that time, the comments about the story have really just taken off. Let's start everything off with a clip from that KPBS report. This is one of the women interviewed at the swim class at the Y. NEW SPEAKER: Yeah, are the first time it was kind of scary and exciting. And it's very good. But it's very nice. Of course I like the water, and I want them to grow up like normal kids. I want them to learn how to swim, and I want to have fun. CAVANAUGH: That was one of the women at the swim class. Remind us about the facts of this story. Where is this class and who is it for? BURKS: It's happening at the Copley YMCA in City Heights which is a low-income neighborhood and it has a high immigrant and refugee population. A lot of them come from east Africa and are Muslim. So this was set up at the request of some east African women because their faith doesn't allow them to swim in front of men. So it's a women's only swim class, but because it was requested by Muslim week, that's who it's primarily serving right now. CAVANAUGH: Who came up with this idea? BURKS: They're in a group called City Heights hope. And it's kind of a support group for east African women and their daughters, and it's also become an advocacy group where they talk about issues in the community and how they can make the quality of life better for them and their daughters. CAVANAUGH: We have a clip from another woman in the report. This is Sara Abdi. NEW SPEAKER: And they're hopeful because we are part of the society, so if we don't have access to the services that other people have, we're trying to break the barrier that we have so our daughters who are as American as anybody else will be able to swim or do whatever they want to do. So there's no limitation on the future. CAVANAUGH: Who's paying for this class? BURKS: The women are paying. They're YMCA members, so they are paying their monthly dues to use the facilities. CAVANAUGH: And there was another important point about this in your story, and that is that there was the impression that the place was closed down and that everybody else had to get out and there was just this special class for the Muslim women. But that's not exactly the way things work. BURKS: Right. The classes are after-hours, so it's a couple of hours every Saturday, and it's after all of the YMCA members have already left, and most of the staff has already left. So they're not kicking out members who would have been there already. So they wouldn't be there. CAVANAUGH: Except for this special swim class, the facility would not be open? BURKS: Right. CAVANAUGH: Okay. Doctor, what kinds of traditions stop Muslim women from taking a swim class with everybody else? BATNITZKY: Well, of course within the Muslim population there are issues of modesty, but these apply to men and to women. But I think as many of the comments suggested, this really moves us away from the story. Of course there are questions of religion and inclusion, diversity, as well as one could take a strictly gender perspective. But for me, those are secondary. It's really a public health issue. We always talk about how we want to get people moving in our country, and our one size fits all is just not working. So we need more of this, not les. CAVANAUGH: You talk about what happens to Muslim women, to any group of people whose traditions don't allow them to take part in normal activities, swimming and exercise. What kind of effect does that have? BATNITZKY: A profound one, absolutely. I've done research in the Middle East and north Africa, and it's, and there women are not able to participate in exercise unless they're in the upper class. And isn't it great they can come to America and be given a space that is truly comfortable for them to exercise? I think that's what America stands for. CAVANAUGH: In hearing this story, considering there is a link between no exercise and obesity and bad health, do you think that starting this class was within the mandate, let's say, of Copley YMCA? BATNITZKY: Absolutely. As well as our national policies at large, all the initiatives that we speak about. We have all women's gyms. And I see this as no different as that. Essentially women in our society are objectified, and the gym is a place where this is particularly acute. And many women, Muslim and non-Muslim, feel more comfortable exercising with women only. CAVANAUGH: Right. And Megan, another point is that even though this was started at the request and being paid for by the Muslim women in this organization, are it's not just limited to Muslim women; is that right? BURKS: Right. Any woman who is a Copley YMCA member can join the class. CAVANAUGH: Michael is calling from Lemon Grove. NEW SPEAKER: Oh, yeah, I think this is a great idea. I know they separate the men from the boys even in school. And it comes down to because they're Muslim girls, it's going to be a controversy. And I think that's wrong. We've got troops going over there fighting for the freedom for the Muslims, and they can't even get the freedom here. I think they should do that. If it was anybody else, it wouldn't be a problem. CAVANAUGH: Thanks for your call and comment. Judith is calling us from normal heights. Hello, withing to the program. NEW SPEAKER: Hi. I just wanted to let the listeners know that this is not unprecedented. In the city of desert hot springs, where the desert hot springs hotel is, there's a very large haSiddic community. And they have made a special arrangement with the desert hot springs hotel to allow them to go swimming once a week in the afternoon with no one else present except the women from that community. So if it's good enough for Jewish women, it's good enough for Muslim. And kudos to the YMCA for doing this. I think it's great. CAVANAUGH: Thank you for your comment. Andrea, professor Freeman, some commenters on the KPBS website say the class is akin to whites only discrimination. Is there a difference, and if so, what is that difference? FREEMAN: The difference between discriminating against blacks and against men? CAVANAUGH: Well, what I'm saying is that we have had some comments on the website that say that holding this swim class for women, and it was motivated by Muslim women's concerns, and allowing only them to participate is akin to whites only discrimination. FREEMAN: Right. Well, you have hit the nail on the head by using the word motivation, because discrimination in a legal sense has to be motivated by hostility or annimus toward a certain group. Whereas a whites only pool is clearly discriminatory because it is hostile to nonwhite, this women's only class is not hostile to men. CAVANAUGH: But it doesn't allow men. FREEMAN: Yes, but when you speak about discrimination in a legal sense, are it's important that there is intent. So the intent to discriminate is part of discrimination. CAVANAUGH: I see. So just not allowing someone to attend is not discrimination? FREEMAN: Not in a legal sense. CAVANAUGH: Ah, ha. So under what circumstances would a class like this violate antidiscrimination laws? FREEMAN: There aren't any. [ LAUGHTER ] FREEMAN: Not for this kind. Class. You could envision perhaps, you know, there have been federally funded schools that are only for men that have been ordered to allow women in. CAVANAUGH: Right. FREEMAN: So under that sort of circumstance. But one class once a week in a Y, that does not discriminate against a minority, I don't think there could be any circumstances under which that would be illegal. CAVANAUGH: I'm just wondering. In the women are paying for this class themselves. But does the YMCA get public funds, professor Freeman or Megan Burks? BURKS: It does get some proposition money. And that typically goes to the youth services and childcare services, be so it's not really for the operation of the recreation. CAVANAUGH: And even if public money were involved, you're saying this wouldn't violate any legal requirement? FREEMAN: No. But because public money is involved, it's possible. If it were private, then in a private place, anyone can discriminate. CAVANAUGH: Now, let me go to the phones again. Sister islaof San Diego, welcome to the program. NEW SPEAKER: Thank you. I was just calling on the this issue here, and I'm an African American, and I just wanted to point out that I believe that this local YMCA is providing a service that Muslim women services has nothing to do with any form of gender discrimination nor anything with esNickizing the YMCA. It's basically addressing a health issue, and this local Y, this issue is nothing new. Just basic research would show that there's an increase of immigrants coming to America, even all the hospitals, they also have to make accommodations. And I think the attorney was saying that except for, like, Harvard and George Washington University, they also have female Muslim and female swimming classes. CAVANAUGH: Thanks very much for the phone call. Our caller makes a point. There are accommodations being made to sort of welcome immigrants, to make sure their health needs are met. But there have been people on the website who seem to be criticizing that part of it because they argue that this slows down the assimilation of Muslim immigrants to the so-called American way of life. How do you respond to that? What is the argument that supports making that kind. Accommodation? BATNITZKY: Well, that's what's so great about America. People don't need to change their ways. This is one of the only countries in the world where everybody should and can feel comfortable. So precisely these initiatives, women's east African swim hour, a Vietnamese swim hour, these are things that we embrace in our culture. We really need to decide whether we're going to be a community. Inclusion or exclusion. And I think is this a wonderful example of the ways we do make particular accommodations for groups to make them more comfortable in our communities. CAVANAUGH: And hasn't research shown that assimilation happens sort of naturally in second and third and fourth generations of people who are here in the U.S? BATNITZKY: Absolutely. And here they're going to a community center. They're not doing it within their community. So in fact, they are interacting with the general population. And what studies have shown,ive done some work within the Arab-American Muslim population, and it shows that these communities when they live together can either reenforce negative health behaviors, and this is a wonderful example of actually the community coming together to do something positive for their health. So I fully applaud this. CAVANAUGH: What does the Y have to say about this controversy that's exploded over these swim classes? BURKS: They sent me a statement this morning. I'll read it. "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. 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. At the Y, we believe it is our social responsibility to give back and support our neighbors" and that's coming from the executive director. CAVANAUGH: Okay. So that's their respond. Now, let me ask you all, there have been some comments on the website too that I want to address. And I want to get everybody in on this. There's one writer who identifies as a Muslim woman who argues that many in Muslim communities, the clothing and the modesty restrictions are not really choices that women make but they're laws that are imposed upon women and female children. And by accommodating veil, make these accomodation, we are in a sense abetting the continued repression of women in Muslim culture. What do you think about that? BATNITZKY: Well, once again, I think those comments move away from the story. But to respond to that, we often hear this argument about the veil, and if you actually ask women who do veil, they say it's actually empowering. It allows them to -- in their job, not to be objectified. And if we look at our own society, the way we're socialized in the United States is to wear skimpy clothes. That can also be seen as oppressive to women. So to me, once again, I really think you can take a very feminist read of both the veil as well as an issue such as the one at the Y. These are mothers trying to take care of themselves, being good role models for their children, and this is something we should encourage. CAVANAUGH: One comment says the women are not allowed to have any other kind of swim classes. Did you get the feeling that that's a restriction that they bridal against? BURKS: I feel like they feel like they just don't have the opportunity to really exercise in general in City Heights. They can't really use the treadmills, are the room has windows that are open so any man walking past can see them. And they can't really use the parks because they have to be covered, and it's pretty hot in City Heights. So I think they're just really wanting to improve their healths and trying to find ways to get that to happen. CAVANAUGH: Professor Freeman, you've seen the comments on our website. We don't have much time. But does this surprise you that in 2012 we're having -- continuing this kind of a conversation? FREEMAN: It really does. When you look at the constitution of the United States , it was based on the idea of accommodating religion, freedom of religion, and the fact that the government cannot establish a religion. But the YMC A without offering these classes is basically rooted in a Judeo Christian value of not covering. So I think the conversation around whether this is American or not, you can look to the constitution and say the framers and the founders of this country wanted us to accommodate all religions, and that's what this class does.
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.”
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.”