THE BLOG
02/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Religion and Exercise Collide


Scenario 1: At my oldest son's swimming lesson recently, the teacher, par for the first day, had all the kids line up next to the pool. It became apparent that one little girl, a devout Muslim as indicated by her abaya (a long black robe that covered her to her wrists and ankles) and hijab (the head scarf), intended to swim in all of her clothing. Our Y has a strict "no street clothes in the pool" policy of which I have run afoul of once myself, getting into a heated argument about swim shorts with a lifeguard who was probably a fetus when I was on Spring Break so what could he possibly know about women's swimsuits, not that I'm still bitter or anything. Anyhow, the girl's mother was brought over and after a small discussion the girl was taken away.

The next week, she showed up in a full body rash guard like the kind surfer's wear to protect them from chafing and the elements. Again, it covered her from chin to wrist to ankle and her hair was tucked into a swim cap. Her mother and what I presume were several aunties lined the bench nearby to cheer her on. As I splashed in the baby pool with my toddler (and my cute little swim shorts on thank you very much), I assumed all would be fine and went back to waving at my sons as they learned the hard way that Rescue Heroes Movie notwithstanding, you really can't magically produce scuba gear when you sink.

All was not well. After several minutes the lifeguard again pulled the girl out of the pool. Mom and aunties were called over. Then another lifeguard. Then the supervisor. The problem? Once the little girl, probably about 8 years old, jumped in the water, her all-white rash guard became transparent and the lifeguard realized that contrary to his instructions of the week prior, the girl still was not wearing a swimsuit underneath. I can only imagine the poor girl's embarrasment as her modesty was argued over. At last they took the discussion to the swim office and I was forced to mind my own business. The little girl never came back to swim class.

Scenario Two: Every time our Hip Hop Hustle class learns a new routine we videotape it and put it on YouTube. What can I say? We never grew out of the dance recital phase. YouTube nights are a lot of fun. We all dress up in whatever incarnation of suburban hip hop mommy we can put together, slap on some makeup, add a few dubious accessories (you should see Turbo Jennie's pimpin' fedora) and whip out the video camera.

Not wanting anyone to embarass themselves by association with us unless they are fully onboard with the hilarity, Turbo Jennie always announces right before we tape to give people the option to step out for a couple of minutes. Usually there are a few takers but that night I noticed something unusual about the group on the sideline. Save for one white woman who was there for the first night and didn't know the steps, every girl who stepped out of the frame was Muslim.

The next day I asked Gym Buddy Krista, who is Muslim and also used to my overly personal questions, what the deal was. Krista explained that in their religion it is not okay for women to dance for men or where men can watch. Exercise is okay as long as they keep appropriately covered, hijab included, but dancing and especially on YouTube where you have no control over who views it, is prohibited. She told me that the women were actually being rather daring by coming to Hip Hop at all since it was right on that dance/exercise line and there are usually two or three men in attendance (incidentally, the men are usually the best dancers in the room).

Our Y, similar to many other fitness establishments across the country with high Muslim populations (you wouldn't guess but Minneapolis has a large number of Somali immigrants, the majority of whom are Muslim), has adapted to this by instituting a "women's only" cardio class. The teacher must always be a woman - as Gym Buddy Bill discovered when he volunteered to sub the class one evening - and they hold the class in a closed studio with the windows curtained off and the door closed. In there, the women are free to dress as they choose and get their sweat on without having to worry about losing their headcovering.

It seems like a good compromise. And yet, as evidenced by the two scenarios listed above, it is not perfect. The women's class is only one hour one night a week. They have no access to the weight floor (and I can't imagine how they would since the weight floor is smack dab in the middle of the fitness area with nary a wall nor a door) nor do they have much variety. Obviously there are problems with what constitutes proper swimming attire.

Other gyms have tried different tactics. There are of course "female only" gyms like Curves. Krista tells me those aren't a good solution since the maintenance staff or managers are sometimes men and will walk in and out with no warning, causing the Muslim women in attendance to have to remain vigilantly covered "just in case." Other gyms, like the one at Harvard, set aside certain hours every day where the entire gym is off limits to men thereby allowing women of all religious (or not) persuasions to exercise in peace. And yet, that hardly seems fair to the men. Last I checked there are no "male only" classes or gym times. Not to mention that many people - including not only Muslims, but Hasidic Jews, conservative Christians and the entire demographic of people who have forgotten what it is like to be thirteen - take offense to a lot of gym music and shows airing on public gym televisions.

So where do you draw the line between discrimination and accomodation? Getting people to exercise is a difficult enough task but it seems even more complicated when you factor in religious beliefs. How much should different religions be catered to? Or should the comfort of a few be sacrificed so the rest of us can enjoy (is that the word I'm looking for?) the Britney Spears catalog in its entirety? Is there any place you know of that has gotten the balance right?