Immigrant women in Lieksa had long hoped for their own swimming session, closed to men. At the start of the year a local Somali association began organising weekly sessions, as according to them the local council had not reacted to their requests.
Those sessions have now been suspended after just three weeks, with the association claiming a council employee has been viewing security camera tapes in an effort to bully them out of using the pool. The matter came to light after swimming pool staff informed the association that they had broken swimming pool rules, and that the sessions could be cancelled if the rules are broken.
The breaches of the rules—incorrect use of swim jog belts, jumping into shallow pools and use of a brush handle to keep a door open—were uncovered after a male employee had watched the tape from the security camera.
“The point of a closed session is privacy, so that no men will see us in swimming costumes,” said Mahamed Luul Abkar, one of the swimmers. “So sure this was a shock.”
“Our men are angry”
The association says that the practices related to their closed sessions were discussed with swimming pool staff beforehand. For example staff could only enter the pool if there was a pressing need.
They added that they made sure nobody could observe them through the windows while they were swimming, or enter the pool through the lobby. The brush was used to keep the door open to make it easier for swimmers to get to the pool—normal practice during closed sessions, according to the association.
“It’s good that the cameras are there, in case anything happens,” said Mahamed. “I admit that people had jumped into the shallow pools a couple of times, but is that a big enough issue for them to watch the tape? Maybe it would have made more sense to ask our own lifeguards if they suspect that rules have been broken. That’d be common sense.”
The women say this is not a small thing, but a question of respect for their culture and religion.
“Our men are very angry and now they’re really suspicious towards the swimming,” said Mahamed. “It can be a big thing within families, if another man has seen the wife in her swimming costume.”
“When in Rome do as the Romans do”
According to the local council, there’s nothing to complain about. The Somali association’s booking is treated just the same as every other group that hires the swimming hall—if there’s a complaint, it’s investigated.
“There was a clear reason for the employee to view the tape,” said Arto Sihvonen of Lieksa municipality. “We were informed that during the session the main door was kept open with a broom handle. We had to look into that. When we did, we discovered other issues.”
Sihvonen says that the security camera footage is always checked if there’s any suspicion of wrongdoing.
“The municipality hasn’t breached anyone’s privacy,” said Sihvonen. “This is how we treat all swimming hall users.”
He added that people could see the Muslim women through the large windows in the swimming hall.
“It’s a public area,” said Sihvonen. “This is a bit of a ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ situation. We didn’t mean to hurt the swimmers’ feelings. The municipality understands the need for the swimming sessions. They don’t have these sessions everywhere.”
There have been flashpoints between Lieksa’s Somali community and other residents in recent years. In 2014 the local Finns Party asked for a whites-only meeting room after it emerged that a multicultural committee had used the same meeting room as the one reserved for their councillors. Police looked into that matter but no charges were brought.
In the same year a Somali taxi driver in the town was beaten up on the job.
Some Somali women now suspect that the security camera was viewed in an effort to force them to stop their swimming sessions.
They wanted to irritate and bully us, so that we won’t go to the swimming pool,” said Mahamed. “Especially as the municipality didn’t organise the sessions itself.”
For now the swimming sessions are suspended, while the women sort out some rules about who can view the tapes and under what circumstances.
The sessions had been part of a project to help integrate immigrants through sport. According to the women the sessions were over-subscribed.