Old Britain, New Problems

This 1996 file photo shows three Yeoman Warder, or Beefeater, recruits standing in front of the White Tower at the Tower of London.
AP Photo/Jacqueline Arzt
Letter from London is Larry Miller's weekly look at news from across the pond.

A last bastion of male exclusivity bites the dust, or more accurately the moat.

After more than 500 years, a woman has been selected to break the gender barrier of the Beefeater's exclusive domain. These are the guards at the Tower of London, the Yeoman Warders who date back to 1485 when they were King Henry VII's bodyguards, rewarded with generous amounts of meat.

Through the centuries the Beefeaters protected the tower and the crown jewels. They are now tourist guides, still dressed in the distinctive red traditional costume found on the gin bottle that carries their name. And to many of them, it is tradition at stake here.

There are 35 Beefeaters. One said the as-yet-unnamed woman will be given a rough ride. Another added, "It's ruffled more than a few feathers."

Those considered for Beefeater duty must be former non-commissioned officers from the British military who served least 22 years.

Because this is the 21st century and not the 15th, equality and integration take priority. A female worker at the Tower remarked: "The old boys will just have to get used to it." And they probably will, grumble as they may.

From the Tower of London to public swimming pools in Croydon, South London and one in Wolverhampton — not as great a leap as it might initially appear.

At the Tower we have forced integration; at the swimming pools there is enforced segregation that has caused some controversy. Two local city councils are being sharply criticized for holding what's being perceived as ethnic minority-only swimming sessions. In other words, no white people allowed. While that's not the full story, that's the way it's being played.

In Wolverhampton, certain sessions are open only to black and Asian women and children. The official rationale is that otherwise "religious and cultural issues would prevent them" from using the facilities and learning how to swim. This replaces an aqua-aerobics lesson that was open to all.

At the Croydon pool there are special evening sessions when the facility is closed to the public. These are segregated by gender and swimmers are required to wear a head-to-toe swim suit. It's open to anyone as long as they follow these rules.

Croydon officials say 250 people attend each week, it serves the needs of the local community, and that it had been running smoothly for over a year — until it hit the media.

These local decisions have not gone down well with some non-Muslim locals. One Croydon resident complains it's a disgusting "us and them" mentality. Others put their views more forcefully, saying these sessions should not be permitted. Some suggest Muslims should build their own swimming pools if they want to exclude non-believers or force people to dress in a certain way.

It's also been a hot topic on extreme Web sites, but not only there. It's being discussed in the London Times and on international news Web sites.

But is it "apartheid", as one critic has charged? Or is it an over-reaction due to growing Islamophobia.

It is unlikely swimming sessions would be an issue here had British Muslim suicide bombers not hit the London transit system — and were security chiefs not warning about imminent Islamic terror threats.

The British government says the Muslim community must not separate itself from the wider society, and these sessions appear on the face of it to do just that. People are worried their world and their swimming pools are being taken over. Their fear is exacerbated by radical British Muslims who say clearly that is exactly what they want to do.

If these special ethnic sessions are stopped, this opens up a number of issues. Men are regularly banned from women-only swimming sessions. Baptisms are held in swimming pools. Orthodox Jews have special rooms in which there is a mikva, or ritual bath, open only to them. What about these?

When you look at all this, it's actually a relief to consider the far simpler dilemma now facing male Beefeaters.

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.