Summer is winding down in Europe, but controversies over "Islamic" swim gear and gender segregation in public pools are heating up, giving form to familiar questions about how to accommodate religious needs without restricting the rights of non-believers.

In France, a woman has been barred from wearing her burqini — a loose-fitting wetsuit that covers all but the face, hands, and feet — because municipal pool regulations "forbid swimming while clothed," according to an official. "These clothes are used in public," he argued, "so they can contain molecules, viruses, et cetera, which will go in the water and could be transmitted to other bathers." An Italian mayor also has banned burqinis in his town, citing hygiene and children's "dismay" upon seeing a "masked woman." (Burqinis are not known to feature masks.)

The Telegraph notes an opposite trend in the UK, where "swimming pools are imposing Muslim dress codes" and gender segregation. Three years ago it was reported that the Croydon council had initiated single-gender sessions adhering to Islamic standards of attire; despite recent claims of backtracking, the Thornton Heath Leisure Centre website still declares that a "strict Islamic dress code applies" during men-only and women-only hours. Similar sessions now have appeared at public pools across Britain, though in many cases the Telegraph states that it is Muslim groups or mosques which organize the swim times.

Let us analyze these stories based on the criteria for accommodating Muslim needs: "Does the desired accommodation infringe on the rights of others? Does it represent a special privilege that would never be extended to non-Muslims? Does it impose an unreasonable burden?":

  • Burqini prohibition. Assuming that the hygienic concerns are legitimate, burqinis clearly infringe on the rights of swimmers to a clean pool and must be banned. However, the French official seems to believe that because burqinis could be worn on the street, they will be worn on the street, rather than in the pool only. If the hygienic concerns are dealt with, the burqini could be permitted in pools, given that it would not violate the rights of others or impose an unreasonable burden on the facility; in addition, some non-Muslims have expressed interest in full-body swim outfits and racers often wear sleek versions.
  • Muslim pool hours. Many municipalities allow groups to rent out public pools for private use. As long as Muslims are not being granted any special treatment with regard to reserving pools, it is acceptable for them to do so and fix the general parameters of the swim times as they wish. However, it is inappropriate for governmental authorities, like those in Croydon, to take the lead by setting aside hours ruled by Islamic mores, let alone by identifying them explicitly as Muslim sessions. This discourages non-Muslims from swimming and forces Islamic customs on them if they do; neither option can be tolerated.

Inside or outside the pool, we can agree to reasonable accommodations for Muslims that uphold the rights of others. Yet we must reject policies that confer special privileges on Muslims or apply Islamic law to non-Muslims.