"Feminism is about women having choice."

A new proposal for gender-segregated beach days has sparked debate among activists over the possible dissonance between feminism and religious tolerance.

Chaim Deutsch, a Democratic city councilman from Brooklyn, will be renting the Kingsborough Community College's beach for two days this summer in order to offer gender-segregated beach days for Orthodox Jews and Muslims.


On June 29 only men and boys will be allowed to use the beach from 9 AM to 3 PM. On July 27 the beach will be open for women and girls only.


Because of the college's summer recess, the beach would have otherwise remained closed on these days. Deutsch is currently raising private funds in order to cover the costs of keeping it open.


“I have a lot of Orthodox Jewish and Muslim constituents in my district who have never been able to go to the beach before,” Deutsch told the New York Post on Wednesday. “They’ve never been able to smell the beach, to walk in the sand. Everyone should be able to enjoy the beach.”


CHATTER

A matter of choice: Allison Josephs, founder of "Jew in the City," an organization that aims to shatter stereotypes of Orthodox Jews, approves of the proposal.


"For the women who choose to not expose themselves to members of the opposite sex, they have less beach options than women who go to mixed beaches," Josephs told Pluralist.


The issue, according to Josephs, is not just respect for religion, but an attempt to accommodate individuals who elect to live chastely. 


"If there is a sizable portion of this community that chooses to live a modest lifestyle like this," she said, "why shouldn't they have the chance to go to the beach sometimes too, in the manner that they choose? Who cares if for many of these women the modesty is inspired by religion?"


Asked if she sees any tension between segregating the beach and feminism, Josephs argued that "feminism is about women having choice. So in that way, this seems completely feminist."


The right to conceal: Fatima Younis, a national organizer with Women's March Youth and the founder and president of DMV Muslims Making Change, agrees with Josephs' assessment.


"One of the main parts of feminism is that every woman has control over her body," said Younis. "By choosing not to swim with men, Orthodox Jewish and Muslim women are exercising their right to decide who gets to see them swim and when. This is something that every feminist should support."


"Just like feminists support the right of women to dress as little as they want, they should equally support the right of Orthodox Jewish and Muslim women to cover the way they want and show their body to only those permissible in their religions," she added.


But... No root in Islam: Ani Zonneveld, President of Muslims for Progressive Values, is dismayed by Deutsch's proposal. The very idea of gender separation, said Zonneveld, has no mooring in Islamic theology, but rather reflects Saudi Arabia's radically sectarian interpretation of faith.


"We vehemently disagree with this proposal as it has no basis in Islamic theology but is a cultural one promoted by Wahabism or the Saudi version of Islam," Zonneveld told Pluralist. "Even in the Muslim world, segregated beaches are exceptions to the rule."


"Segregation is not normal and is not beneficial," she added. "Men and women are supposed to work and play together. This segregation mindset is a new phenomenon going back 25 years only, whereas, at the inception of Islam 1400 years ago, there was no such segregation."


Many mosques, according to Zonneveld, required no gender separation. Neither does prayer in Mecca today, nor the physical contact that comes with the ritual practice of circumambulating the Kaabah, a practice that takes place near Islam's most holy mosque.


THE LAW

On one hand: New York Civil Liberties Union criticized Deutsch's proposal as discriminatory.


“What chutzpah. People don’t have the right to impose gender discrimination on a city beach simply because it’s mandated by their religion,” NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. “It is one thing for the city to provide reasonable accommodation for religious practice, and quite another to limit the public access of everybody else.”


On the other hand: Akiva Shapiro, a New York attorney who specializes in constitutional and religious liberty laws, disagreed with NYCLU's conclusion. According to Shapiro, the proposal isn't discriminatory because it is:


1. Limited in scope.


2. Limited in time.


3. Paid for by private funds.


"I think it’s constitutional," Shapiro said to Pluralist. "The beach is going to be closed anyway during these times and it’s paid for by private funds."


Asked whether he thinks Deutsch's move could be successfully contested in court, Shapiro expressed doubt. 


"I don’t think that a court would uphold that kind of challenge," he said. "The human rights law says that you are allowed to make distinctions on the basis of sex for a reasonable public policy reason."


Shapiro also added that Deutsch's plan is legally sound as a public policy, given that it does not attempt to establish one religion over the rest, nor plans to exclude one gender, but instead aims to open the facility to groups that otherwise wouldn’t be able to use it.