Ghent court rules against burkini ban in swimming pools

Summary

In the first ruling of its kind in Belgium, a Ghent court has found that public swimming pools must allow women to wear burkinis in their facilities

‘No less hygienic’

In the first decision of its kind in Belgium, a Ghent court has ruled in favour of two Muslim women who filed a complaint against two public swimming pools for not allowing them to wear ‘burkinis’. From 1 September, the two pools – and all other public pools in Ghent and Merelbeke – must allow women to wear burkinis, or full-body swimming costumes.

Both swimming pools – one in Ghent and one in neighbouring Merelbeke – had regulations that banned the wearing of burkinis along with shorts or T-shirts in the water, citing hygiene reasons. The court ruled against the pools, saying the inclusion of burkinis in the ban was discrimination.

“There is no discrimination if you have a valid reason,” the court said. “In this case, it has been scientifically shown that a swimming costume that covers more of your body but that is made out of the same material as any other swimming costume is no less hygienic. There was also no evidence that the costumes were less safe. The argument about neutrality is also irrelevant.”

‘Doesn’t go far enough’, says city council

The court cited documentation gathered on the subject, including a study by the Flemish Care and Health Agency. This is the first such decision in Belgium, though it does not apply to the entire region, only to Ghent and Merelbeke.

The swimming pools much adapt their regulations accordingly, even if they decide to appeal the decision. The City of Ghent, in fact, is going to appeal the decision – because they feel it does not go far enough.

“The city council feels that the verdict is too limited because it specifically points to religion and philosophy as the only exception,” the council said in a press statement.

It would be a very sad day if a symbol of oppression became standard in our swimming pools

- Antwerp city councillor Fons Duchateau

City councillor for sport Resul Tapmaz (S.PA) later told De Standaard: “If it has no impact on hygiene, then that has nothing to do with religion.” He said that anyone should be able to cover their bodies, whether it’s because of a skin condition, scars, being transgender or any other reason.

Fons Duchateau (N-VA), Antwerp city councillor in charge of diversity and integration issues, said that his city would not be following Ghent’s example. “It would be a very sad day if a symbol of oppression became standard in our swimming pools,” he told VRT. This is not about an article of clothing or about hygiene regulations. This debate isn’t even about swimming. It’s about equality and discrimination against women.”

All of Antwerp’s public swimming pools follows the city’s regulations, which don’t mention the burkini by name. They say only that women must wear “a swimsuit or bikini” that is “made from a material specifically designed for swimming”.

According to the Flemish Institute for Sport Management and Recreation Policy, 80% of Flemish municipalities do not allow burkinis to be worn in their public swimming pools. “This judgement is certainly going to set a precedent,” Jogchum Vrielink, a lecturer in law and gender discrimination at the Université Saint-Louis in Brussels, told De Standaard. “More cases will follow. It’s only a matter of time.”