PRIVACY curtains have been installed at a new public pool in the western Sydney town of Auburn so Muslim women can swim without being seen by other pool users.
The lightweight curtain runs around the glass walls of the program pool where female-only swimming sessions are held for two hours each Sunday. Pool staff can draw the curtain to block the view into pool when the sessions are held.
Belgravia Leisure, which operates the refurbished council-run facility which was opened in March, says the curtain was installed to overcome cultural barriers and encourage Muslim women to use the pool.
"There was a lot of research done prior to construction and we identified that they were user groups that we wanted to accommodate," he said.
"Traditionally that core population group that would use the pool with the blinds closed would have to come after hours or at the earliest or latest possible times.
"Having the blinds means they can use it in the middle of the day and still have full access."
Traditionally, women wearing the hijab have had to fork out for modesty swimsuits or not swim at all but the privacy of the new pool means they can be comfortable in a female-only setting.
Similar facilities have attracted controversy at other council pools within Sydney and interstate but the operator is within its rights to section off the pool under the anti-discrimination act.
Section 126 states that exemptions to the act can be granted in order: "to provide people of a particular race with equal or improved access to facilities, services or opportunities to meet their special needs".
With only one pool at the previous centre, Muslim women had to cover up.
Auburn Council general manager Malcolm Ryan supports the move.
"There was a very high demand for female-only classes at the aquatic centre before redevelopment to cater for the differing modesty requirements," he said.
"These classes were very popular but due to the centre only having one pool before redevelopment, the high demand wasn't being met.
"With the installation of curtains at the program pool, the Auburn Ruth Everuss Aquatic Centre is inclusive to the whole community at all times and can cater to any requirement, without it impacting on the rest of the centre."
The program pool is one of three pools at the complex and is used for rehabilitation or swim classes as well, with the curtain drawn only during prescribed women's swimming times.
"It is fairly common in the industry to have these types of spaces but they are usually blocked off with black plastic on a window," Mr McIntosh said.
"We have made conscious effort to make it more open and light."
Yusra Metwally was a regular at the Auburn Pool when she was younger and is excited to use the pool again.
Local women are thrilled at the new feature and hope it will encourage more to dive in.
A keen swimmer at Auburn pool when she was younger, Yusra Metwally founded women's swimming group Swim Sisters last year in a bid to keep young Muslim women in the sport.
"There has been so much discussion about what women can wear in the pool and so many have turned away from swimming for that reason," she said.
"Having that option just means that there are more opportunities to get women swimming and more women in the pool who may have had barriers to enter a pool under ordinary circumstances."
While modesty suits, commonly known as 'burkinis' are becoming more and more regular, the private space means women can wear whatever they are most comfortable with.
"I was one of those women who didn't like swimming in a burkini and for a long time I didn't swim because of it," she said.
"I remember when I was younger I was told by a lifeguard that my clothes weren't appropriate for the pool - you feel like you are being policed and that you stand out.
"Some women are worried that what they wear in the pool can expose them to questions, comments or stares."
Ladies-only memberships are available at the pool, with lessons in water safety offered every week alongside women's swimming sessions every Sunday afternoon.
Fatima Mossavi, 13, from Old Guildford was one of the first to use the pool in her lessons with the Australian Afghan Hassanian Youth Association (AAHYA) and she is already excited to share her skills with her five older sisters.
"I have been swimming since I was seven but not all my sisters can - this is good for us because they want to swim in private and now they don't have to wear anything special," she said.
The Auburn Ruth Everuss Aquatic Centre offers ladies only swimming every Sunday from 3pm to 5pm at the program pool.
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