Bern: Gym hall for Muslim women

Bern: Gym hall for Muslim women

The Swiss Islamic Central Council is making headlines recently. See also Switzerland: Young converts could pose national security threat


By the end of April, Muslims who wish to do so, could exercise in a closed gym in a Bern suburb. A very recent and controversial service by the Swiss Islamic Central Council.

Before the birth of her children, Nora Illi used to go to the gym. Without taking off her niqab, the veil covering her face. Converting to Islam at the age of 19, the 26 year old Swiss abandoned the pool. But, protected by a burkini, a swimsuit covering the entire body, she continued swimming in the lakes. People still look at her with surprise when they see her, she admits with a laugh on the phone. "But I am in a public area, I have a right to bathe."

For Muslims like her, who want to exercise far from male eyes, the Central Islamic Council (CCIS or IZRS) sought out the Wabern gym, ten minutes by tram from the capital, as revealed by 20 Minuten. Starting April 28th, Wednesday evening, they can practice badminton, volleyball, weight lifting and gymnastics. The first sign-ups came in, and a similar request is under consideration in Aargau. Nora Illi, who's breastfeeding her 3 month old twins, will wait. But as a woman - the only one in the IZRS - she helped set up this activity.

Qaasim Illi, spokesperson for the IZRS and husband of Nora, says that several women have turned to them for help in finding a gym hall. Nora explains: We do not want to risk of exposing ourselves. Here we can remove the veil, be free in our movements. The association inspected several buildings, they needed a hall which was not visible from the outside.

In the late 1990s, Nadia Karmous, head of the Cultural Association of Muslim Women in Switzerland, rented the pool in Hauterive for several hours a week. The contract was broken in 2005 by the municipal council, which estimated that the Sunday cleaning was too complicated. Since then many women turned to them for new activities. In French-speaking Switzerland, there are several who go to the Espace Equilibre, a fitness center in La Chaux-de-Fonds reserved for women. Danielle Neuhaus: "We do have Muslim customers, some of which exercise with a headscarf. The presence of these women is a plus. We have discussions about Ramadan, minarets. I think that the notions of some customers about Islam have changed. This mixture of cultures is enriching."

The vice-president of the Union of Muslim Organizations in Geneva, Lucia Dahlab, does not necessarily share the conviction of the ultra-orthodox IZRS. But she doesn't see a problem with this. "If these women feel more comfortable as well, why not?" She understand them also because she herself was thrown out of a Geneva swimming pool where her children were swimming because she was too covered. Nadia Karmous adds: When we proposed special hours at the Neuchâtel pool, Christian women benefited. There are many activities by age and gender. Why not for women who want to exercise without having to put up with uncomfortable stares from certain men?

For Saïda Keller-Messahli, president of the Forum for Progressive Islam, it's obvious: The Wabern initiative is by a 'small ultra-orthodox minority who refuse to integrate in the society in which they live." She says that it's a gesture of segregation, emphasizing the idea of separation of the sexes from childhood. This culture of segregation and the moralization of the female body goes against all freedoms and self-determination of the Muslim woman.

Source: Le Matin (French)

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