LINCOLN PARK, MI — When Fitness USA in Lincoln Park, MI, turned its lobby area into a coed cardio annex in March, it unwittingly set into motion a controversy that was resolved last month with frosted glass walls and poster panels.
For the past 50 years, the 14,000-square-foot club has been open to women and men on alternate days of the week. When the club opened its new Cardio Zone annex to men so they could exercise even on the women-only days, men working out in the annex could see the women exercising in other parts of the club. That fact concerned the club's female Muslim members, who for religious reasons must exercise out of the sight of men.
Ammerah Saidi and Arrwa Mogali, American Muslim school teachers who purchased lifetime memberships based on the club's offering of gender-specific days, complained to the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) about the changes. Saidi later met with the management at Fitness USA to register her concerns.
The Islam religion encourages modesty in all situations, including a health club environment, said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of CAIR. Devout Muslim women must be covered at all times. When they go to the gym, they often wear head scarves (hijabs), sweatpants and T-shirts in the cardio area and a T-shirt and nylon pants in the pool, Walid said.
“The Muslim females who launched this complaint believe that according to our religion, it would be immodest for males to see them without their head scarves on or in provocative positions while they're working out,” he said.
By allowing men to see the women on the women-only days, Fitness USA was breaching its contract of providing gender-specific days, Walid said.
The club advertises its gender-specific days to new members during the signup process, Saidi said.
“My friends, family and I stressed that we needed to work out apart from men for religious reasons, and they assured us all of this agreement,” she said. “In confidence, we all gave them our money, some upwards of $1,400, in order to enjoy such a great offering.”
The club's contract, however, doesn't specify gender and states that the company can change the facility, including hours and equipment, at any time at its sole discretion, said Jodi Berry, executive director of Fitness USA.
“We never made any kinds of future promises or predictions about the facility remaining one way or another,” she said.
While Fitness USA did not stipulate that the club had to be open on gender-specific days, they had upheld their verbal statement for the past 50 years, Saidi said.
“In no way were we ever to assume they would change such a long-standing tradition, especially when they knew that the huge Muslim demographic in the metro Detroit area counted on their ability to uphold the honor of this verbal agreement,” said Saidi, referring to the 350,000 American Muslims who live in southeast Michigan and 600,000 American Muslims residing in the state of Michigan.
While Fitness USA realizes some women and men prefer to work out in a gender specific area, it is important that management be able to change the clubs at times, said Berry.
Saidi said she didn't want to limit the company's right to change their facility as long as it didn't infringe on the rights of the Muslim women, some of whom had been loyal to the club for more than 15 years.
Saidi and Mogali circulated a petition among Muslim women who were members of the club asking the gym chain to return to gender-specific days for the entire facility or install a partition between the coed cardio annex and the main exercise floor. Two hundred Muslim women signed the petition, a number Saidi said she could have doubled if the club had not told her to stop circulating it. Saidi said Berry refused to look at the petition, but Berry said she was never given a petition.
“All I requested is that the gym separate the new coed sections from the main workout areas which they maintained were still gender-specific,” Saidi said. “I had initially been denied such a valid and simple request and thus pushed to meet with the company leaders in order to have our voices heard.”
Saidi and Walid met with Berry and James Hoppin, vice president of Fitness USA, on April 18 at Fitness USA's corporate office in West Bloomfield, MI.
CAIR gave Fitness USA a week to respond with a solution, Berry said, but on April 21, a story titled, “Muslim Women Fight to Exercise Away From Men,” landed in the Detroit Free Press. Berry said CAIR didn't give Fitness USA enough time to rectify the situation.
“We met with them on a Tuesday and they asked for a response within a week, and two days later, it was in the newspaper,” she said. “We didn't have an opportunity to make a decision on what was the best solution in that limited time frame.”
Two business days after the meeting, the club reached an amicable agreement with the Muslim members in which the club agreed to frost the glass walls of the Cardio Zone room and install large poster panels to block visibility from the coed area to the exercise floor. These changes have since been made to the club.
Fitness USA, which has 17 locations in Michigan, California and Indiana, prides itself on being able to alternate the facility for women and men, Berry said.
The gym chain introduced the Cardio Zone annex at several of its clubs during the past year, but to Berry's knowledge, the Lincoln Park, MI, club was the only facility that received complaints after the remodeling. Berry said that the club had no idea that adding the coed annex and opening it to both men and women seven days a week would be an issue with the club's members.
“It was just an oversight on our part,” she said. “The Cardio Zone area was created at a great expense solely to provide an improved fitness experience for everyone. We were shocked and disappointed that we may have unknowingly offended anyone.”
The agreed-upon solution still allows employees to see the exercise floor and doesn't create a safety issue for employees or members, Berry said.
Saidi is pleased with the outcome.
“My friends and I are satisfied with the changes made to the Lincoln Park location,” she said. “It allows both sides to be happy with a mutually satisfying outcome. The company is able to institute their new coed Cardio Zone while maintaining their tradition of gender-specific days.”
Berry is pleased the issue has been resolved.
“Our main focus is to make the exercising experience enjoyable for all our members,” Berry said.
Here are some tips for health clubs that serve a large Muslim community.
Since some Muslim women are not allowed to answer the phone at home, refrain from leaving them phone messages.
If you're expecting service or delivery men to stop by your club, let your female Muslim members know in advance so they can cover their heads with scarves or hijabs or have a staff member watch the door or window.
Consider allowing your female Muslim members to wear T-shirts and nylon pants while swimming or designating a women-only time in the pool.