A young woman closes thick curtains across windows overlooking the brilliant aqua blue square that is the pool at the Matt Griffin YMCA in SeaTac.
As the rest of the building empties out for the evening, she secures the loose corners with duct tape. Another staff member takes a post at the entrance, greeting women in long wraps and burqas as they trickle in.
In the locker room, a mother and her two young daughters slowly, tentatively, begin to change out of their hijabs and fold away the colorful fabrics of their dress.
Behind the curtained windows, the women, now wearing baggy tops and long shorts, bob happily in the shallow end of the pool, watching as a group of kids start a game of water tag. The swimmers, women and a few young children, wear an assortment of sportswear ranging from loose-fitting shirts and pants to modest bathing suits.
"Most prefer to [wear] boxers. Or just tights, a t-shirt and tank top is more comfortable attire for us," says Shukri Abdi. She's come with a group of friends and though she doesn't plan to swim today, she enjoys watching her peers.
"A lot of us are really religious and can't allow men to see us," says Abdi as she stands near the glassy blue of the pool.
Gender-segregated programs like this one accommodate cultures where modesty and propriety are integral parts of the religion and lifestyle. But the city's strict set of non-discrimination policies make such programs difficult to sustain.
"We heard a resounding [need] for women-only programming because of the limitations of religion and [the women's] comfort levels with the pool," said Shelly Skaro, senior program director for the Matt Griffin YMCA.
Skaro wanted to provide a curriculum that would serve South Seattle's diverse community. The swim program was introduced last fall and has been wildly successful since. Once, nearly 100 women showed up, filling the pool to capacity. While the majority of attendees at the swim are Muslim, participants include immigrants, refugees and women who feel most comfortable swimming without men around.
Mindful of cultural differences, the YMCA schedules only female staff and hosts the event after-hours so that women can have the dressing rooms and pool to themselves. Other community centers throughout Puget Sound have begun offering similar programs with reduced fees, and childcare and interpreters to educate the women about water safety.
While these accommodations may seem modest, participants appreciate Skaro's attention to detail.
"In Islam there's no mixing of the sexes when it comes to sports or any type of event," explained Jamila Farole, a University of Washington graduate student who has been coordinating swims for Muslim women in her community at the Tukwila pool since 2009. She wears glasses and a thin red headscarf.
"It's not because of segregation or discrimination, it's [to protect] women's integrity, honor and modesty so there's no temptation or any premarital relations."
Funding women-only programs
The Matt Griffin YMCA has been able to hold these monthly swims because it is privately funded. Most gender-specific activities run by community centers or other neighborhood facilities lack the space for recreational programs and so must rely on the policies and availability of the local public pool.
"The women really love it. Every time they come, they tell us that they wish it was more consistent, that we could do it every week," Farole said. "And we have to tell them that it's about the scheduling and pool policies."
In 2006, Sue Siegenthaler, senior program manager at the New Holly Youth and Family Center, helped organize swims for women and children as a way to abate higher rates of crime during the summer. More than 50 women showed up for that first private swim at the Rainier Beach public pool.
Two more swims were held that summer before funding evaporated. That year, Siegenthaler also heard of a two-year pilot program started by several doctoral students and physicians at Harborview. Their gender-specific swims were also being hosted in South Seattle with the hope of promoting fitness among immigrant communities.
"It became clear to us that fitness needs were an issue in the Somali population, both among the children and the adults," said Eva Moore, a former pediatric resident who worked at Harborview and planned the program with the help of her colleagues. "We didn't have places that we could refer them to for fitness options."
Moore learned from talking to her Somali patients that many of the women did not understand exercise in the Western sense of the word. In their home countries, they'd walked daily and had access to many secluded waterways and swimming holes. When they arrived in the U.S., they didn't have the time, space or opportunities to exercise that they had in the past.
Siegenthaler explained that the gender-specific swims are currently too irregular to qualify as exercise. But the programming has huge implications for participants' well-being.
"We talk about individual health, but really this is about community health," Siegenthaler said. "People share [with us], 'I'm sleeping better,' or 'I have better relationships with my kids.' ... [They tell us] 'I don't have to take the same medications.'"
Such activities strengthen the center's bond with the community and serve as a social gathering for those in attendance.
Many bring their children to the pool. Kids with floaties and kickboards splash around the shallow end. Their laughter ripples throughout the cavernous space. Few of the mothers know how to swim, but occasionally an older child will take their younger peers aside and teach them to paddle along the edge of the pool.
"This isn't only an exercise space, it's a place that we can give [these women] information," says Roda Qumae, a family support worker at New Holly. "They talk about their safety, they talk about their food, they talk about many things."
The activites also help the women address unseen health problems, such as the isolation and resulting anxiety that can characterize immigrant life.
Shortly after moving to Seattle in 1990, Ibtesam Elmadani started feeling intensely homesick. Noticing that she was spending hours on the phone with her family back in Libya, her husband encouraged her to take up several new activities to become better acclimated to her new environment. Elmadani began taking driving lessons, enrolled in ESL classes and sewed in her spare time. She also started volunteering as a facilitator for the Muslim Sister's Group at North Seattle Family Center, where she helped interpret and coordinate community events. There she learned that other Middle Eastern women shared her desire for leisure activities. Elmadani gathered a group of her "sisters" and began attending Meadowbrook's monthly private swims.
"Women and girls, they don't have [the] opportunity to go out there and do things they like to do because of the hijab. So we give them the opportunity to have fun, to dance, to feel free and swim together," Elmadani says.
Constrained by anti-discrimination rules
The demand for women-only swims is high, but many Seattle pools can't officially adopt the program into their agenda. Seattle Parks and Recreation's strict anti-discrimination policy requires that all gender-specific programs be private rentals.
"This rental system can be overwhelming and cost-prohibitive for members of our low-income and immigrant communities," Siegenthaler said.
It leaves women like Siegenthaler wondering whether, in an effort to be inclusive, the policy has ended up being less than fair.
"The Parks Department is such a great partner but it kind of has its hands tied by their own policies," Siegenthaler said.
"To me, ideally there would be some attention paid to those policies in interpreting them differently or rewriting them."