Women-only hours in Brussels public open-air pool cause online controversy

Women-only hours in Brussels public open-air pool cause online controversy
Credit: Belga

The decision to implement women-only hours and allow the wearing of a burkini in Brussels’ recently opened public open-air swimming pool is at the base of a political debate in Belgium.

The FLOW swimming pool opened its doors in the Pierre Marchant bridge in the Brussels commune of Anderlecht on Thursday, and has been the subject of discussion for the entire weekend.

On Friday, the leader of the Francophone liberal MR party, Georges-Louis Bouchez, took to Twitter to call the rule allowing a burkini (a swimming suit that allows Muslim women to bathe without revealing their bodies), and the organisation reserving certain hours for women "communitarian madness."

Additionally, a federal MP for the Flemish Christian-democratic CD&V party, Hendrik Bogaert, added fuel to the fire by tweeting that he "cannot believe that there will be separate Islam hours in public swimming pools."

"You should not give in to that. You give a finger, they take an arm," Bogaert said. "Just in case anyone wants separate Islam lanes at the seaside: we are going to walk over them quietly, the beach belongs to everyone."

His tweet, as well as Bouchez's, received support from many other members of the Flemish (Open Vld) and Francophone (MR) liberal party, including former leader Gwendolyn Rutten and current leader Egbert Lachaert, who said that "after all the struggles, we do not want to end up in segregation."

On Monday morning, however, the CD&V party expressed its disapproval of Bogaert's tweet, saying that the message goes against the respectful way the party wants to communicate.

"We are not in favour of separate swimming hours on the basis of belief but that is not the purpose of this separate hour," the party said in a statement to the Belga news agency.

"It is really regrettable that such a beautiful initiative from the associative world - an open-air swimming pool for the youth of Brussels, at last - has been hijacked in a polarised debate," it added.

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Flemish Minister of Brussels Benjamin Dalle, who is also a CD&V member, called the controversy "unnecessary," and added that the one-hour women-only time slot is "an autonomous choice of the non-profit association."

Dalle also underlined that the rule is aimed at all women: "I hear they didn't see a single headscarf there last Saturday. That has nothing to do with Islam. Such ladies' hours also exist in Maasmechelen, Evergem or Waregem."

In a reaction to Bouchez accusing State Secretary for Gender Equality and Equal Opportunities Sarah Schlitz (Ecolo) of "not understanding certain social phenomena," Schlitz's cabinet stressed that she sees no issues with separate swimming hours for women, and called it a "sham debate."

"That is not problematic for us per se. Swimming pools with separate hours for seniors or families exist too," her spokesperson Jessika Soors told De Standaard.

"It is especially unfortunate that a good citizens' initiative, which after years of political promises has succeeded in starting up a Brussels open-air swimming pool, now has to conduct this debate," she added.

The link to interculturalism especially annoys Schlitz's cabinet, which stated that "the real problem is that girls apparently want to swim separately because they no longer feel safe in the public space. We prefer to work on that problem in depth."

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