When Harvard University started offering female-only gym hours this semester in accordance with the religious beliefs of Muslim women, it gained national attention.
At the University, the Aquatic Center has accommodated the requests of cultural groups on and off for at least 10 years, and for the past year has set aside a specific swim time for Muslim women.
Although the personal restrictions vary from woman to woman, Muslim women can’t let men see them in revealing or tight clothing, or in compromising positions that exercising can present.
The group has private, female-only pool time in a Cooke Hall pool Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. Windows are blacked out, and there’s a female lifeguard. The women can do lap swim or free swim.
Duane Proell, director for aquatic center programs and facilities, worked with requests made by members of the Al-Madinah Cultural Center.
“We try to meet the needs of a culturally diverse University,” Proell said. “I think the University prides itself on being a diverse community and we have an obligation to meet those needs.”
The swim time is part of an initiative known as Sisters Playing Sports, which was organized by Nadia Huq, events coordinator for the Al-Madinah Cultural Center.
Huq, a chemistry sophomore, said some female members also play pick-up basketball, volleyball or soccer when they can find empty gyms.
“There’s ways to get around it and find places to do something athletic,” Huq said. “We just want to promote physical well-being.”
Huq worked with Sarah Stallkamp, aquatics director for programs and events, to set up the Saturday swim time.
“Girls have been in contact with Sarah in the past to set up pool parties and things like that,” Huq said. “But this is the first time we’ve had our own hours on a consistent basis.”
Stallkamp said the pool wasn’t being used during the time.
‘A more comfortable environment’
Nandita Rahman, a physiology senior, said she didn’t wear hijab (the head wrap and full clothing Muslim women traditionally wear) in high school, and ran track in shorts and T-shirts.
When Rahman decided to start wearing hijab, she said there was “a clear difference,” as her workout frequency dropped from three times a week to once or twice a month.
“It’s an issue for me,” Rahman said. “I can’t just go to a gym and wear tight clothing anymore.”
Rahman, who participates with Sisters Playing Sports, said she would take advantage of female-only hours at the University Recreation Center, if they were available.
“I know how to operate all the equipment and the machines and all that, but I can’t go in with the guys,” she said. “You see one girl with hijab and everyone is looking at you.”
Graduate student Sara Khan attends the swimming hours for a break from her normal treadmill routine, which she does at the Rec Center in full hijab.
“I might get weird looks, but I figure we’re all there to work out so it’s not something I really think about,” Khan said. “I don’t feel like I get negative treatment at all.”
Khan said female-only hours would provide a more comfortable environment for women, including non-Muslims.
“Some women, I’m sure, may feel apprehension by being stared at,” she said. “And, I’m sure non-Muslims feel this way: Men sometimes hog the machines.”
Some controversy arises, however, regarding fairness for men and women.
Senior kinesiology student Andrew Wall said although he wouldn’t feel discriminated against, it would change the peak hours at an already-crowded facility.
“The Rec Center isn’t big enough for people as it is,” he said, “so it would limit the times that guys could come.”
So far, the separate pool time at the University Aquatic Center hasn’t yielded complaints, but Proell said it’s because there is always another pool available during the times that they schedule special groups.