A “storm in a teacup,” as one woman puts it? Or genuine concern about the sensitivities of Muslim women in particular, and women in general, who reserve the right to have their own space away from men?
This public debate has become an important one in Germany in recent weeks, triggered by a petition from a female student about the country’s last remaining outdoor pool exclusively for women, in the city of Freiburg.
Her problem: Despite being for women only, the pool does have men present – the lifeguards.
The battleground is the Lorettobad – fondly dubbed “Lollo” by the locals. Its only entrance is a narrow wooden door, and on it there’s a clearly written sign: “Damenbad” – women’s pool. If you’re male, you don’t belong. A few wooden slats block the view.
The Lorettobad has been in existence since 1886. Back in those days, pools all around Germany were separated for the two sexes out of concern for public decency and morals. Over the decades, however, this separation gradually gave way to shared pools. The Lorettobad remains the last outdoor pool exclusively for women.
The gender dispute began when a student, Janina Talaj, launched an online petition to demand the removal of male lifeguards. Women should be exclusively among women, she argues.
She alleges that the men’s presence disproportionately affects Muslim women, who stay away if there are men present at the pool. Also, Talaj argues, women might also simply “want a more protective area as well as some time out from the everyday staring and harassment.”
Her online petition is to run until mid-August, by which time Talaj hopes to have 2,000 backers. So far, around 600 women and men have signed it, with reports saying around 360 are from Freiburg.
The news and controversy over the petition has meanwhile spread across Germany, with many people hearing for the first time that a women-only outdoor pool even exists.
 A solution for Talaj’s complaint is not as simple as it might at first appear. There are female lifeguards at the Lorettobad – but not enough of them. And so over the years, male lifeguards have had to be hired. “There had never been a problem with this,” says Rene Derjung, spokesman for Freiburg’s swimming pools authority.
“We have been surprised by this debate because it does not reflect the actual situation in the pool,” Derjung says. He says the male lifeguards behave professionally and are reserved towards the women.
There have been no complaints. Beyond this, Derjung says, there isn’t really an alternative since, as is the case generally everywhere, there is a shortage of qualified lifeguards.
“Quite simply, we do not have enough female lifeguards to keep the pool in operation with just them alone,” Derjung adds. If the petition’s demand to remove the male lifeguards were actually put in practice, then the pool would have to be permanently closed.
This view is supported by Friends of the Lorettobad, a private association founded years ago that has openly distanced itself from the petition. And women arriving at the pool also can’t get excited about the petition.
“It’s a storm in a teacup,” says one elderly woman who regularly comes to the pool to meet with friends for a “hen party,” as she calls it. There have always been male lifeguards. Another woman says she sees no problem. “At first it is perhaps unusual. But the men are only doing their job.”
Spokesman Derjung stresses that the Lorettobad remains in high demand, with about 30,000 women visiting it each year. Nor has there been a tangible drop in numbers in the wake of the petition debate.
It also turns out that the Lorettobad is not the only women-only swimming pool in the region. Some 70 kilometres south, in the Swiss city of Basel, there is also a pool only for women – but it also has male lifeguards. A spokesman for the Swiss authorities says the pool has received criticism from strictly religious Muslim women, many of them arriving from France, just across the border.
“But the rules have proved successful,” the spokesman says – and so male personnel will continue to be used in the future. — DPA