Being fortunate enough to live in the beautiful coastal city of Sydney, and this being a summer Sunday, I decided that it would be a fine afternoon to go visit the secluded McIvers Baths in Coogee. Coogee Beach boasts several beautiful ocean pools (oh geez, I sound like a tourism board here), but McIvers Baths is special because it’s Sydney’s sole ocean pool that only permits women, girls, and pre-teen boys. As such, it’s popular with Sydney’s queer population, nuns, and Muslim women, among other groups who aren’t necessarily so comfortable swimming around men or who appreciate a women and children only space.
So today a lot of people were stopped in their tracks when a family, including adult men, found their way far off the beaten path of the main beach, past the other pools, and around the cliff to the Baths. There’s not signage at that point, although there is signage at the entrance to the baths, so this was clearly an accident. They hung around looking for a while, during which time a lot of the bathers uncomfortably looked back and at each other, and then the group started slowly approaching.
I’d been talking to a couple of Muslim women, one of whom was increasingly put out. ‘I wear the veil,’ she told me, and was not okay with being seen in her swimming costume by men. ‘Is someone going to go talk to them?’
‘I’ll do it; I’ll get my glasses,’ I said.
I did so, so I could actually see where I was going and who I was talking to, and walked over to the family. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, and started to explain that it was a women only space (‘I’m a woman!’ said a young girl, to which I said I knew and she was welcome), but at this point none of them were paying attention to me.
This was because a bather far behind me started being incredibly rude. ‘You’re not welcome here,’ she said, which is really not the sort of thing one should be saying to people who aren’t white and get that kind of comment for other reasons, as one of my bathing companions noted afterwards. Then she said something I won’t repeat about penises being allowed elsewhere in Coogee, which is a) not okay b) not all right to say in front of the young children who were in fact allowed there and c) really not on considering the fact that the presence of trans women and people who don’t fit the gender binary has been a contentious thing in that space, and, so I’m told, trans women have won the right to bathe there.
Looking really concerned at this point, a bunch of the bathers who’d been happy about me going forward told me to give up, they’d go away eventually. Things had really gotten nasty and out of hand.
The person behind me continued in this vein, and it only got worse when the very young children of the approaching group started to call back misogynistic slurs, primarily ‘slut’. ‘If I was flashing my titties, I’d be a slut,’ she called back, which is, wow, really not an okay response when supposedly defending women, particularly in a context in which many women do routinely go topless (against Council regulations about the Baths). ‘Fine, I’m a slut,’ she said eventually, and gave up.
We all stayed put for a while, with some hijabis trying to hide under the water and/or behind rocks, and eventually the family went away. The Islamic population of the pool then got out of the water in quick succession, although some had returned by the time I left.
It was just a really uncomfortable and awful experience, which could have been saved by the local Council putting up signage at the isolated edge of the pool – something I’ll be recommending. It could also have resolved quickly and more pleasantly without that one young woman’s rudeness and grandstanding, and also it’s pretty sad that very young kids know how to wield misogynistic slurs. It could have gone worse, but basic human decency could have made it go a lot better.
Anyway, apparently that was an isolated incident in which is generally a pretty wonderful place, but one can’t have everything. Mistakes happen, but people make them horrid experiences.