A new swimming pool in the western Sydney suburb of Lidcombe is making waves (sorry). Actually, it’s a swimming complex consisting of gym, outdoor 50-metre pool, indoor 25-metre pool, kiddies and families activity pool (with fountains and fingers crossed a wave-making machine, failing which I will boycott the place) and a programs pool whose length hasn’t been specified on the website (probably because it is on the small and shallow side).

Caroline Overington puts it like this: “a swimming pool in Auburn in Sydney’s west has put up a modesty curtain so women can swim” in a policy of deliberate “segregation … an old-fashioned idea, dead and buried many moons ago, as we all came to see each other as equals” and something “plucky Australian suffragettes and feminists, and their supporters … crushed”.

Gosh. A curtain around an entire swimming complex, and all for the sake of a few pesky Islamic women and girls? This has gotta be the mother of all curtains. A photo would be easy to take and splashed across the front page of The Australian and its sister rags. But the only photos available show a light curtain surrounding a pool smaller than many backyard pools. This small patch is the activities pool. The women who swim behind the curtain have access to privacy a mere two hours a week. On a Sunday.

During these two hours, other swimmers have access to the rest of the complex. Slow coaches like me can spend ages struggling through a 50-metre lap. Less ambitious swimmers can try the inside pools. In the end, we all get chlorine on our faces. No creeping sharia is involved. The water isn’t certified halal. The doctrines of more secular religions (including Overington’s brand of north Bondi feminism) are neither suppressed nor compromised.

But still Overington gasps. “How does the curtain fit with Australian values? It is a symbol of the segregation of the sexes, a nod to the foundation principle of the patriarchy, that men control and indeed own women.” But from what I can see, no man owns the young girl who just wants to have a swim and prefers to avoid the possibility of blokes checking her out. No man owns the woman wearing a burqini who wants to learn how to swim in privacy.

When it isn’t surrounded by curtains, the pool functions like any program pool servicing disabled swimmers, the elderly and physio patients.

At my local pool (Monash Aquatic Centre in Mt Waverley, Melbourne), the program pool is in the far corner of the complex and completely walled off from the other pools. Analyse that, Caroline.

Back in 2013, I used to swim at the Oasis Aquatic Centre in Dandenong, On Sunday evenings, we were all kicked out to make way for an army of Pakistani aunties, Polish grannies, Somali mums and women of all ages and nationalities. I never asked their religious heritage, but a fair few aunties had red dots on their foreheads and a fair few women sported crucifix necklaces. This kind of unAustralian segregation is, it seems, in big demand at municipal pools across the country.

I admit, I don’t mind baring my beerless gut and massive manboobs in their full glory before jumping in the deep end. But what kind of feminism refuses to cater for women who don’t wish to be gawked at, or who feel a bit conscious about their physique?

Still, not all News Corp hacks take the forced feminist assimilation line. James Morrow argued … um … I’m not sure what he argued. It didn’t sound all that negative, though he did remark that many women “adher[ed] to a modesty code more suited to pre-Medieval Arabia than 21st century Sydney”. I’ve read worse from the opinion editor of the Tele. Meanwhile in the Herald Sun, Susie O’Brien defended encouraging conservative Muslim women’s swimming by temporary segregation in publicly funded aquatic centres, arguing: “It’s important that all members of our community are accommodated at public facilities, and not just the majority.” Should we shut down libraries because not everyone can read or not every reader wants to be a member of the library?

Of course, such mass debates are nothing new. In her book Islamophobia in Australia, Alice Aslan recalls an instance in 2002 when a caller to Alan Jones’ radio show complaining about Auburn pool set off similar hysteria. ​

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.