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Under the cover-up

A bikini ban for a Ramadan event at a public pool should not be taken lightly as it puts fundamental freedoms of Western society on the line.

A COUPLE of weeks ago a report surfaced about families being ordered to cover up before attending a public event to avoid offending Muslims during next year's Ramadan in August. It involved VCAT approving a bikini ban for a community event to be held at Dandenong Oasis, a municipal pool. Dandenong Council, and pool managers YMCA, successfully sought an exemption from the Equal Opportunity Act to compel ''participants aged 10 and over'' to ''ensure their bodies are covered from waist to knee and the entire torso extending to the upper arms'', and to refrain from wearing ''transparent clothing''.

Controversy erupted: tabloid TV lapped it up, talkback callers fulminated, bloggers pontificated, politicians, including Premier John Brumby, were quizzed. Amid the outrage came the predictable and inflammatory warnings that the ruling was evidence of a sinister plan to ''Islamise'' Australia.

The ruling enforcing what VCAT described as ''minimum dress requirements'' for Muslims was certainly novel. I'm not aware of any other instance in which the tribunal has made a religious dress code mandatory at a public venue - as opposed to a place of worship - let alone at the local swimming pool. In fact, the ruling was so novel that for some it simply couldn't sink in.

Perhaps this is why some of the fair-minded people in my orbit initially doubted the story's veracity. After reluctantly conceding it was indeed true, they still thought the thunderous response over the top. We're talking about a one-off, two-hour event, they argued. It will be held when the pool is closed to the public and normally used for a women-only swimming session, the attendees of which are almost all Muslims. And hey, aren't we all covering up to be sun-smart now anyway? (OK, maybe not in the middle of August.) Let's keep things in perspective, they said.

Well, I agree perspective is crucial. And seen from a wider and deeper perspective, the Dandenong pool episode is neither trivial nor insignificant. It is but one example of human rights laws producing outcomes that restrict rights. It raises tough questions about how far public authorities ought to go in accommodating cultural practices that sit uneasily with mainstream Western values.

And it exposes some disturbing and hypocritical currents in progressive thought, a point best and fittingly made by a Dandenong-based Muslim women's group, set up to help newly arrived Afghan migrants integrate into Australian society. ''I've spoken to a lot of women; they don't want this,'' Women's Better World president Mandy Ahmadi told the Dandenong suburban newspaper, flagging her campaign to overturn the ruling. ''Enough is enough … why run from the Taliban to come to this?''

And yet, as Ahmadi's ''enough is enough'' phrase might suggest, the VCAT ruling was not the first example of authorities bending to accommodate religious sensibilities at Melbourne's public pools. Dandenong is not the only municipality to allow gender-segregated swimming. The practice is now almost routine: a development that has unfolded largely under the public radar and therefore attracted scant debate. Viewed against this trend, the VCAT decision is perhaps less of a leap than it first appears.

First some history. When a proposal was floated in 1992 for women-only swimming sessions at Brunswick Baths, all hell broke loose. Preferential access to public facilities is a contentious subject and for good reason. Women-only gyms, gay bars and men's clubs obviously serve a role in the private sector. And any ethnic or religious group can similarly hire out public facilities for private functions and set whatever rules they fancy.

But municipal services are a different story. Brunswick Council had argued the sessions were needed because many women in the municipality were prohibited, for cultural reasons, from swimming in the presence of men. Councillors also claimed that many other women weren't comfortable using the baths because of ''sexual harassment'' or body image issues.

The then Equal Opportunity Board invited submissions on the proposal and received ''a mountain of correspondence''. Angry scenes played out at town hall meetings. One outraged ratepayer, David Smith, explained that his wife and daughters had found it surprising that women would want to return to an era of segregation.

An issue also emerged about whether single-sex sessions would fully satisfy Islamic requirements for modesty. Sheikh Fehmi Naji el-Imam of Preston mosque was quoted as saying that a conscientious Muslim woman should not be seen in the company of women who did not observe the dress teaching. In other words, non-Muslim women turning up in skimpy bathers would pose a problem.

Cr Cathy Lanigan, described as ''a member of the council's socialist left majority'', was willing to accommodate Sheikh Fehmi's concerns. ''We think the needs of most [of the Muslim women] will be met if non-Muslim women wear either one-piece bathers or a T-shirt over their bikini tops,'' she said.

Interestingly, Lanigan did not dispute a reporter's suggestion that the swimming proposal was part of a ''radical feminist political agenda''. I would have thought bowing to clerical demands on how women of other faiths ought to dress reflected a radical Muslim agenda, if anything. But remember this thread because to some extent we're still tangled in it.

The board rejected the Brunswick proposal but it proved to be a temporary setback for the cause. A few years later, councils renewed the push for segregated swimming, and they commissioned research into their communities to bolster their case. Most councils also sought the less visible - and more politically palatable - option of holding sessions outside pools' normal opening hours.

During the past decade or so, VCAT has approved out-of-hours segregated swimming at many councils. I tried to count how many, but tired of the task after hitting double digits.

There's a degree of fiction here; a legal sleight-of-hand. It presumably would take a brave council, and even braver tribunal, to endorse a ''Muslim women only'' swim session. But most ''women-only'' sessions are conducted with Muslim requirements in mind, even if non-Muslims can turn up and even if, as appears to be the case, a small number do. Most councils base their VCAT submissions explicitly around the needs of Muslim women. (One pool in the municipality of Melbourne suspends women-only sessions during Ramadan because so few women attend at that time.) Nearly all these councils also obtain approval to staff the sessions with women only.

The cultural sensitivity goes further still. A spokeswoman for Brimbank City Council, for instance, said their swimming sessions took place in ''visually secure surroundings''. In other words, there's no danger of women being glimpsed in the pool by passers-by. (Such ''security'' is a key demand of some Muslim communities.) And while every council I contacted denied that dress codes applied during the sessions, some of the responses suggested the issue was murky.

The Brimbank spokeswoman explained that ''participants should be dressed appropriately, as is expected of a centre used by children and families''.

The City of Darebin's acting mayor, Gaetano Greco, was more candid. ''We don't impose a particular dress code,'' he said. ''However, women attending should be respectful of Islamic beliefs.''

I admit to being uneasy about our public municipalities treading so carefully around religious sensitivities, particularly when doing so under the banner of ''women-only'' access, with its (radical) feminist overtones.

But there is another side to this issue because at the centre of this debate are real women whose lives have been improved by these sessions. All very well for the likes of me to lecture about the sanctity of our secular public space, being at perfect liberty to roam through it.

In its 2006 application to VCAT for segregated sessions, Brimbank led evidence about the large number of disadvantaged women in the municipality. Many are refugees and recent arrivals from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan. They tend to be poor and isolated. The council even produced data showing some residents had a lower-than-average life expectancy. Research had indicated swimming was an activity these women were keen to participate in, and that it would bring health and social benefits. But without segregated sessions, the women would never experience the joys of the pool.

It is a powerful argument in support of women-only sessions. The dilemma is a tricky one, and I don't pretend to have all the answers. But flowing from this is a reasonable question: namely, what's next? If the experience overseas is any guide, we're on a slippery slope.

Britain gives some hint of what's ''next''. Last year, the Telegraph newspaper reported on swimmers being forced to comply with Muslim dress codes during weekly segregated sessions at six public pools. In the most extreme case, Croydon Council in south London instructed on its website that ''during special Muslim sessions male costumes must cover the body from the navel to the knee and females must be covered from the neck to the ankles and wrists''. Some British Labour MPs slammed the dress codes as ''divisive''.

WITH the Dandenong Oasis ruling - which is what came ''next'' here - we're now almost in Britain's league. Greater Dandenong mayor Jim Memeti defended the ruling as part of a council strategy to promote ''greater respect, tolerance and understanding of others''. And yet this strategy is directly contradicted by the demand for ''tolerance and understanding'' being made of one side only, namely the non-Muslims.

The most noteworthy criticism of VCAT came (again) from a Muslim woman, Sherene Hassan of the Islamic Society of Victoria, who feared the dress code would undermine the purpose of the event in fostering harmony. (The media blow-up suggests that she has already been proved right.) Otherwise, the official defenders of liberty and human rights fluffed it. Liberty Victoria said the curtailing of liberty at the public pool was reasonable because the event was to be held out of hours. Human Rights Commissioner Helen Szoke compared the bikini ban to dress codes in pubs. Really? Banishing thongs in pubs is about preserving decorum. But surely appropriate dress at a swimming pool would be, err, bathers?

A request to cover up, however politely made, is layered with intimate messages; about men lusting and women being lusted over, about the dangerous and vaguely shameful nature of sexuality. Such ideas run counter to the West's more than 500-year struggle for individual freedom - including both freedom of religion and freedom from religion - and for gender equality. Our public authorities ought to be pushing back hardest when these values are under threat. Yet this is precisely where they've been buckling under pressure.

The community workers and VCAT officials who sought and made the Dandenong ruling probably congratulated themselves for their ''tolerance''. Possibly there are a number of like-minded people who would happily attend the Ramadan function and dress as a Muslim for the night. And when the party's over, they could go home and spread the message of tolerance to their daughters, who are, one assumes, free to visit the local pool wearing as little or as much as they wish.

But what about the young Muslim girl who is beginning to question some aspects of her religious heritage, and wants the same room to move as the daughters of these ''tolerant'' folk? What if her ideas about how a ''conscientious'' Muslim woman ought to behave differ from those of Sheikh Fehmi? What if she dreams of ditching her burqini for a bikini?

Isn't there at least an argument that all these publicly funded, respectfully modest and ''visually secure'' swimming sessions undermine her bid? And what message does the Dandenong ruling send her? Here are the civic institutions of liberal, secular society effectively saying: your cultural practices are so sacrosanct, so unassailable, that even non-Muslims must comply with them.

Shouldn't they instead be resisting attempts to water down our fundamental human rights, which exist for the benefit of all? We don't have to go the way of France and force people to break out of their traditions and join us by the democratic poolside. But neither should we be blocking their path to greater autonomy in the name of ''tolerance''.

If the Dandenong story made you uncomfortable, trust that instinct. It means the line, to which we've been steadily edging closer, has now been crossed.

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Ralph - yes I too would like to know the identity of the first poster here, who clearly misses the whole point, as well as being incendiary "If only the Jewish community had enough faith in its own values to do the same!". I ask what the minority Jews (0.5% of population) have ever imposed on the dominant host society here? I wrote on this article at length (twice) in more general terms a while ago here. More specifically, surely the point is not that "rather than force them to accept others standards of immodesty", but rather that the majority culture, the HOST society to which these immigrants have voluntarily come, is succumbing to a minority, and an intolerant one at that. And who cares (know?) about the lifestyle of the writer of the article. Its hard not to think that Comments are a waste of time. I will probably refrain in future.

Posted by GP (George) on 2010-10-13 06:19:05 GMT

Ronit and I encourage commenters to leave their identity. Some of them use pseudo IDs. We suspect that if we made the IDENTITY field compulsory, it would have a "discourage" influence on comments. But I"d like very much for the first commenter - the one at the very bottom, to identify themselves.

Posted by Ralph Zwier on 2010-10-13 05:02:14 GMT

Roberta, When a guest comes to your house, I would hope that you are sensitive to their culture and tradition, and do not give them a lecture of why their values are wrong. But thank you for exposing what this debate is all about. It"s not about "freedom"; it"s about our values being better than anyone else"s, and so they should accept them or else.

Posted on 2010-10-13 03:15:36 GMT

Islamic women in stringently Islamic societies are the most repressed, restricted, abused, dishonored and devalued citizens. This is the understanding of Sharia as practiced by many. The various body cover-ups imposed on women (from head to full body cover-up) are meant to remove any hint of sexuality - but are not a religious mandate. The total body suit, a "canvas prison" hobbles movement, restricts peripheral vision, and demeans the wearer. It is not modesty that is achieved - it is an invisible non-person that results. Aayan Hirsi Ali, the Somalia-born former member of the Dutch Parliment (she is now a US citizen) wrote "Nomad" and "Infidel" about Islam. She describes the female genital cutting, the "chattel" that females are, the agression that is encouraged in males and the violence it engenders, and the submission required of girls. Females are the invisible non-entities in most Islamic societies. Aayan Hirsi Ali states that newcomers to the West should be taught the institutions of freedom - a Reformation of Islam is desperately needed. I feel sympathy for the Muslim women who would like to swim - but I believe that THEY SHOULD COME AS THEY CHOOSE, AND SO SHOULD ALL OTHER SWIMMERS. When someone comes to my house, I do not become the visitor. The guest does not take over, he/she is not in charge. There will never be a reformation in Islam if the girls think, "This is the way it is for everyone."

Posted by Roberta on 2010-10-13 03:11:08 GMT

The idea of imposing modesty by going to VCAT is, in Jewish terms, a complete contradiction! I had been undecided on this issue, but I now agree with YMR, having been told a story by a Rabbi: there was an Observant Jewish woman who overdid her modesty by almost completely covering up with multi layers. She looked dowdy. She came to her rabbi and asked him why it is, that she is unable to find a husband. The rabbi said she needs to dress more tniusdik (modestly). She was aghast, thinking "How can I dress more tsniusdik (modest) than I am?". Simple, said her rabbi, "The essence of modesty is to NOT STAND OUT in a crowd. Your current dress code makes you stand out - dress more modestly". The Jewish value of modesty is at least partly to "keep a low profile". The idea of imposing modesty by going to VCAT is, in Jewish terms a complete contradiction!

Posted by Ralph Zwier on 2010-10-11 03:36:41 GMT

Like the exisitng dress code (i.e. prohibiting what today"s Australian society happens to decide to be "obscene") is also enforced by court order! Try swimming naked and see what happens!

Posted on 2010-10-11 02:16:24 GMT

This very cautious, but prudent and sagacious article contains one centre piece I want to comment: \"Such ideas run counter to the West\"s more than 500-year struggle for individual freedom ˆ including both freedom of religion and freedom from religion ˆ and for gender equality. Our public authorities ought to be pushing back hardest when these values are under threat. Yet this is precisely where they\"ve been buckling under pressure.\" - Yes, exactly this is the crucial point concerning democratic rights of liberty: freedom OF and FOR any religion is of necessity to combine with freedom FROM any religion, because that is the often forgotten basic principle of the free West‚s most central insight: There are so many different things we like or dislike. There are so many possible prescriptions to think off that would be beneficial even for those who don‚t like them. But after centuries of wars for such normative issues in religion and politics we have finally learned the only solution for the stunning diversity of man‚s desires, preferences and aversions, that ultimately understood: The only successful, truly Œsavoury‚ way to social harmony and Œmolecular‚ peace within a free and pluralistic society is a prudent self-restriction: to internalize that we have to give up our (even most benevolent) inclination to patronize (to tutor, guard, steer or control) others just for the most pre-eminent reason ˆ to escape from others‚ unwelcome patronizing and suffocating tutelage. It is a classical Œtit for tat‚. There is no other way, because all (rightly praised) tolerance is principally sustainable only as a two-way, a mutual commitment. This must be held up incessantly against all ideological claims for dominance, again and again, with resolve and stern consistency, otherwise every ideology striving for societal dominance (even in tiny and seemingly innocent details) will inevitably erode and finally abolish this crucial commitment of mutual tolerance. Just the pit-bull among the religions, radical Islam, has 1400 years experience of doing this. That has provided the world with 57 undemocratic, un-free and basically un-just countries (in the OIC), where the liberation of the human mind and the introduction of full human rights seem to meet insurmountable obstacles. They are protected against any crucial reformation by the Quranic death sentence for apostates. These obstacles are created by a step-for-step taking over the rulings of Œpublic morality‚ ˆ a fight that just now goes on in another 60 countries in the world. They all will only manage to escape from an extended, creeping Islamization if they attentively watch this stealth process in careful close-up. Such a detail in close-up is this whole, highly significant swimming-pool issue in Melbourne ˆ just a pars pro toto. Nobody should be allowed to push society into a direction counter to its leading principles. Over-emphasizing group-sensitivities would lead us back straight into a manifold of blasphemy laws and imply the end of liberty and freedom: incessant supervision and censorship of both words and attitudes.

Posted by MK MD Sweden on 2010-10-10 10:11:04 GMT

To anonymous: "In this "secular" society, Christmas and Easter are public holidays; the Lord"s prayer is recited when Parliament convenes each day and public money funds Catholic schools." Virtually none of these things re permitted in USA, a far more religious society that Austr., due to the Establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution and they should not be permitted here either. It"s a scandal that there is no constitutional or statutory separation of Church and State in this country. But how can you take away Public Hols in the "Land of the Long Weekend"? When I first moved to NY to live in 1983, I arrived on Good Friday, and being a (non-observant) Jew brought up in Melbourne, was staggered to see that it was business as usual, no holiday at all. There was no Public Holiday to commemorate the Jews alleged murder of Jesus, surely a good thing (if one is Jewish). The irony is that Australia is one of the most irreligious countries in the world (many churches, almost all empty), with so many religious Holidays. USA is probably the most Christian society in the world - a fact not widely known - with the fewest religious Holidays. Xmas Day is, and I can"t figure that out: it may be for commercial reasons (i.e. shopping). For the sake of completeness, yes, they do also say a prayer in Congress, and some currency says "In God We Trust" (Motto of the US), tho" I don"t believe that is the Christian God but some kind of undefined Supreme Being; they Founders were largely Deists. Washington famously wrote regarding the pirate dispute with Tripoli: "as the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.."etc... America is not a Christian Nation (tho" perhaps a Nation of Christians). It"s a pity the world follows the USA in so many of its most coarse, crass and materialistic characteristics; it should follow it in this regard, with a formal separation of Church and State.

Posted by GP on 2010-10-10 04:59:09 GMT

It"s a sad time when a request for women to wear more than bikinis is considered as the West losing its "moral bearing". I would hope that our morality is bigger than greater than that.

Posted on 2010-10-10 04:26:42 GMT

Surely the real issue here, only hinted at, is that this is very the first immigrant group of which I am aware, in this or any other Western country, that seeks not to integrate into the culture of the host society, but to impose its own values upon it, with a presumed, indeed often openly stated goal of ultimately dominating that host society (Sharia Law, and all that...). This is a global pattern, and Australians should not be surprised that it is now happening here. What can"t be done with the sword will done from within, and not even by stealth, but quite openly as in this article. What is truly shocking is not this assault on the West (nothing new there) but that the West has lost its moral bearing, its memory of what it is, of what made it what it is, and what and who it fought for - and against - for so many centuries (including its historic enemy, Islam, which it finally turned back in 1683 - "The Gates of Vienna" - and has been on a steady downhill run since then (no wonder they are so frustrated and humiliated). A case of collective cultural amnesia: this is what is truly shocking. For God"s sake, even the Pope apologized to these people not long ago for his Regensburg speech in which he quoted someone from the 13thC that offended the delicate sensibilities of these people. And the RC Church never apologizes to anyone! Or at least not until a few hundred years have passed. This incident is but a small example of the abuse of the value know as "tolerance". Nowhere is it written that one must tolerate those who are intolerant (esp. those who are among the MOST intolerant), yet today we live in an Alice in Wonderland world, where everything is turned upside down in an age of Moral Relativism, the triumph of a total perversion of liberal and left traditions, and running from a fight is once again fashionable. There is a long-standing term for this behavior, "appeasement", the most odious and contemptible word in the language of politics, but yet once again fashionable. How much blood and treasure must be lost this time round? Maybe none, maybe just the very concept of the Western Civilization and all that means, as it just lays down and dies, sccumbs from within. But then, nowhere is it written in stone that great civilizations last forever, either; of course they don"t. As goes the old French saying "plus ça change, plus c"est la même chose".

Posted by GP on 2010-10-10 04:10:09 GMT

..."Enough is enough.Why run from the Taliban to come to this?.." Or as Howard and Costello were applauded for saying, if you don"t like what Australia has to offer get out!

Posted by Danny on 2010-10-10 03:28:57 GMT

If it"s a public pool, I want to be able to swim in it without covering up. It"s as simple as that. I"m sure many women coming from Islamic countries want the freedom to swim in regular bathers too. They were escaping from repressive laws and lifestyles after all. Come on men, do you really think it"s much fun getting into a pool fully dressed? Try it some time!

Posted by Ronit on 2010-10-10 02:18:09 GMT

Every comment about "lines being crossed" and Szego"s nonsensical objection based on "what will come next" misses the point of what these women are asking for, In this "secular" society, Christmas and Easter are public holidays; the Lord"s prayer is recited when Parliament convenes each day and public money funds Catholic schools. In this "tolerant" society, images of the sexualised and secular mores of the (alleged) majority and thrust in front of everyone as we walk down the street. Surely there is some room for women wanting to swim in a modest environment?

Posted on 2010-10-10 02:02:04 GMT

That difference - the difference between davidknows, and the apparently Observant contributer to the first comment (at the bottom) and the other observant commentator (3rd from the bottom) - that difference is what I am conflicted about. Where do you draw the line. Has the line been crossed? My comment to all three of you is that this action is very near the line.

Posted by Ralph Zwier on 2010-10-10 01:53:42 GMT

When a Muslim value is modesty, and the non-objectification of women, I"m happy to support it, because it"s my value as well.

Posted on 2010-10-10 01:48:35 GMT

The City of Darebin"s acting mayor, Gaetano Greco, said that " ... women attending should be respectful of Islamic beliefs."" Are any local council mayors calling on Moslems to be respectful of Australian values and beliefs? In particular, the separation of Church and State which is such a fundamental principle in modern Western society? Szego argues that a line has been crossed, and she"s right

Posted by on 2010-10-10 01:46:04 GMT

No. We need to be much more thoughtful and selective in what we oppose and what we support. Wholesale imposition of sharia law on the general population? No! Allowing women (Muslim, Jewish or anyone) to swim in a modest and inclusive atmosphere? Yes!!

Posted on 2010-10-10 00:39:04 GMT

Sure!! But isn"t this the subject we are constantly discussing?? That islam does not need to perpetrate jihad here, or any other western country, we are making it ease for them. A small minority dictating what to wear?? Of course sharia is being inplemented by the stupididty of our politicians. What is required is a resounding NO to their rules, period. Like the bishop of Cordoba, Spain, they wanted to go worship at the mosque "Catedral de Cordoba" considered world heritage, and the bishop said :NOPE!!Since our leaders are keeping them happy, it is up to the public to say just that: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!

Posted by Lori Low on 2010-10-10 00:28:32 GMT

Please think very carefully before applauding the anti-religious, pro-evangelical secularism of this writer - known for her anti-religious lifestyle an views. We should be congratulating Muslims on their efforts to dress according to their values of modesty, and likewise praising Dandenong council for giving them space to live this way and enjoy public facilities, rather than force them to accept others" standards of immodesty. If only the Jewish community had enough faith in its own values to do the same!

Posted on 2010-10-09 23:52:37 GMT