x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Women shouldn't have to sacrifice their faith to cool off

What this country needs is more ladies-only swimming pools, or more hours for women only– really for women only – at existing pools.

The hotel I stayed in on a recent holiday had four swimming pools. In them men, women and children were splashing about in a free-for-all.

There were some brave Muslim women in burqinis, but few of them got in the water. I guess they were dressed that way just in case they had to jump in to save their children from drowning. Even with four pools there wasn't one for ladies only.

I remember ladies-only Wednesdays at Al Mamzar Beach in Dubai more than five years ago. I wish that we had a ladies-only public beach now. There are ladies' clubs, but they are small, crowded and expensive.

The other choice, of course, is health clubs. Some of these have women's only options, which is good, but often they're not very clean or don't have lifeguards or swimming instructors.

Then there's the family option. "Don't worry, it's for only families," a pool manager claimed.

Was she serious? As I looked at the kidney-shaped 12-by-5 metre pool, just thinking about ducking kicks from someone else's husband and his kids made me queasy. His wife wasn't around, and I knew why not: because she, like me and many of my friends, would rather stay dry than jump into a mixed pool.

If only there were some women-only public beaches that my friends and I could go to.

With that UAE's year-round sun and high temperatures, swimming should be the national sport. But this is where it gets complicated. Here there are several different societies living side-by-side. Some of these have people who would prefer separate swimming facilities, while others don't want that at all.

It is not only Muslim women who prefer gender separation for swimming. But Muslim women probably do make up the majority of people with that view.

Of course, the "mixed genders, no problem" group has more access than those of us in the women's only camp. But as time passes, women-only spaces for swimming are becoming as rare as roses growing in the desert.

For Muslim women like myself, this is a modesty issue. It's written in Ibn Majah's Sunan that the Prophet Mohammed stated that modesty is part of faith. Unfortunately, today it has become an expensive part. For those of us who prefer a women-only setting finding a place to swim has become our personal jihad.

In my neighbourhood there are many buildings with pools, but not many residents use them. This should be a right for residents of a building, but this right is often cut off, either because their pool is open to the non-resident public for a fee, because it is poorly maintained, or because it is staffed by persons who don't respect the need for privacy and modesty.

One woman I know is paying Dh3,000 a year just to use the pool and the beach at the Sharjah Ladies Club, because every time she got into her building's pool the woman at the door would let the maintenance men in, saying: "It's for just one minute, Madame."

As tenants we help pay for our building's maintenance, so proper pool facilities should be our right. However, too many building management companies don't seem to see things this way.

Still, there may be a rescue on the way. Due to popular demand, there may be some women-only public beaches in the works for Abu Dhabi. I am hopeful that other emirates follow suit and make women-friendly beaches of their own. There are many women like me who are waiting for that day to come.

Waiting, however, should not be our only option. The country needs new regulations that mandate women have equal access to women-only facilities. And at facilities that already exist, there is a need to improve the rules for the use of residential pools, so that everyone has the chance to enjoy these facilities.

Why? Because everyone likes to take a dip in the pool every now and then.


Maryam Ismail is a teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE