Monday, March 10, 2008

Women's Only Gym on Harvard Campus



To accommodate Harvard's devout Muslim women, the university has decided to have women-only hours at one of the campus's gyms. The hours have been set up so that Muslim women can work out without having to worry about men looking at them. One student columnist suggests that men-only hours be provided at the same time as the women-only hours in a different gym. That way, everybody has equal gym time and the Muslim women can still practice their faith freely. Problem solved, right? Well, not so much. A Harvard spokesperson said the general response has been "You're in America. Assimilate or get out." I know, because it's not like religious freedom is in the Constitution or anything.

Michael Smerconish has a problem with the hours too. He says that majority rules, and since only 6 Muslim women have complained, there's no point in inconveniencing other people out of their gym time. But what would be the general response from those male students who have to go to another gym on campus at that time? "Why should I have to walk to a different side of campus just to appease these Muslim women? Poo!" So which is more important? Preserving religious freedom or preserving some guy's usual walking distance between point A and the gym?

18 comments:

K2 said...

I don't understand your apparent support for this decision.
I do not believe there is anything in the Islamic faith that requires its female adherents to work out in gyms. These women are making a secular decision to use resources provided by a presumably secular gym, so it has nothing to do with preserving their religious freedom.

Others (men) who should be able to use the gym are instead imposed with religious restrictions and denied access. How is that just?

FEMily! said...

I think you might have missed something. Without separate gym hours, the Muslim women have nowhere to work out. It's not like the separate gym hours for Muslim women means that men on campus can't exercise anywhere, since there is more than one gym on campus. A Harvard student suggested that another gym on campus have male-only hours at the same time as the female-only hours, and that's a policy I support.

Sebatinsky said...

Yes, it is almost like having the little black children attend school at the same hours but a different location.

Hussein Ibish, when interviewed on the program, points out that there is no rule forbidding Muslim women from exercising in front of men, so I don't see on what grounds you can support this decision.

FEMily! said...

I support it on the grounds that these women, because of the modesty that is the foundation of their faith, don't want to exercise in front of men. It's not something that these women are going to change their minds over. Not every Muslim woman is as modest as these Muslim women, but that doesn't mean we have to force them to adopt a less strict form of their faith. Some Muslim women don't mind getting a mammogram from a male doctor, but some do, and they have the teachings of their religion to back up their decision. That doesn't mean a female doctor shouldn't be provided upon request.

Your analogy doesn't really work. It's not the same thing. Separating Black children from White children was a way to keep Black children away from White children. It wasn't for the benefit of Black children; it was for the benefit of White children. Women-only gym hours is an accommodation for the Muslim women, not a way to segregate them from others who don't want to be around them for xenophobic reasons.

Usually, I don't support separating the men from the women. Say that the reason the university decided to separate them was because many women complained of being harassed by men while working out. The problem in that case isn't that women and men are working out in the same room. It's that men feel entitled to harass women and make them feel bad about their body image. If that were the case, I would say that separating the women and men would just be a band-aid for a more systemic problem, and I wouldn't support that decision.

k2 said...

Do you support this kind of thing in general, for instance if fundamentalist Christians requested heterosexual-only hours or the KKK/NBPP requested white/black-only hours? As I see it such requests could be justified using the same points you're making for the Muslim women but I assume (correct me if I'm wrong) you wouldn't support them.

I don't see the women-only case as being qualitatively different to other (clearly objectionable?) cases. Presumably you do else you wouldn't support it, so what distinction are you making between cases?

FEMily! said...

Read what I said to sebatinsky. The reasoning behind the decision is very different from the examples you and sebatinsky gave. Those examples (and the example I gave in the last paragraph of my comment to sebatinsky) are indicative of a systemic problem with racism and sexism. What Harvard is doing eliminates a problem. There is absolutely no unfairness in their decision to provide women-only gym hours at one of the campus gyms. Can you name a problem with this specific case that creates a problem? So far, you and sebatinsky have only made comparisons, comparisons that don't really hold.

Sebatinsky said...

First, I think my racial segregation analogy works fine, with the understanding that it is an analogy, not a claim that the two scenarios are identical. You seem convinced that the women must be the black children in this scenario, but they aren't - they are the whites who find that the very presence of blacks (or men) is so uncomfortable that they are unwilling to go to a gymnasium at the same time.

Someone being uncomfortable with the presence of a man does not saddle that man with one ounce of responsibility when he is in a facility that he has the same rights to be in as the woman. If person A is uncomfortable in the presence of person B, THAT IS PERSON A's RESPONSIBILITY. We cannot be expected to remove person B, who has done absolutely nothing wrong, just for someone else's comfort.

I also don't see how it could be a feminist stance to use an overstated line of division between the sexes to choose which persons to discriminate against. What exactly is it about those men's penises that is offensive to those women? I would contend that any discrimination in the name of religious freedom is a farce. Common accommodations for religious beliefs include long skirts for work uniforms, allowing non-standard vacation leave, the allowance of beards, long hair, or hijabs. None of these things affect other people, nor do they deprive anyone of the right to visit any public location (or location that they have the right to use as a result of payment, like the college gym). This is because we have /freedom of religion/, not a requirement for religious accommodation. No one ought to be deprived of any rights in the name of religious freedom. Would you support sex-segregated dining facilities because some women are uncomfortable eating in front of men? Or, at the very least, women-only dining hours?


Furthermore, you are shifting the burden of proof inappropriately when you demand that we provide evidence that you are wrong (though I'm happy to provide some). YOU are the one making an assertion that deprives someone of rights, so you must justify your stance.

k2 said...

I don't agree that the reasoning is or need be different. If it were Christians objecting to the presence of homosexuals then...
'I support it on the grounds that these Christians, because of the pronouncements of their faith, don't want to exercise in the presence of homosexuals. It's not something that these Christians are going to change their minds over. Not every Christian is as fundamentalist as these Christians, but that doesn't mean we have to force them to adopt a less strict form of their faith. Some Christians don't mind getting treatment from a homosexual doctor, but some do, and they have the teachings of their religion to back up their decision. That doesn't mean a heterosexual doctor shouldn't be provided upon request.
[...]
Heterosexual-only gym hours is an accommodation for the Christians, not a way to segregate them from others who don't want to be around them for Christophobic reasons.'

...the same (or any similar) reasoning is seen as being bigoted and unjust. The Christians don't have the right to use their religion to control where or when homosexuals can exercise, just as Muslim women don't have the right to use their religion to control when or where men can exercise.
If you don't see that comparison as holding, please do explain why.

As for problems, I can only speculate. Inconvenience is safe to assume. Congestion in other gyms or at other times due to men needing to find other places and times to work out. General displeasure at not being able to work out at your preferred place and time. These are all minor but are nevertheless things that people shouldn't have to put up with just because of someone else's religion.

Sebatinsky said...

Well said, k2, and much more articulate than my response.

FEMily! said...

See, K2, your analogy is evidence of a problem, not the solution to one. Your analogy for separating Christians from gays and lesbians is indicative of heterosexism. Muslim women not wanting men to watch them work out isn't indicative of some sort of Muslim privilege that they want to exert on a Christian majority. Secondly, men-only gym hours at another gym at the same time as the women-only hours should take the inconvenience factor out of the equation completely. And I don't think our guaranteed right to religious freedom should be compromised because some guys (or some women, for that matter) don't want to walk to another gym. It's a small price to pay to make sure that the First Amendment stays intact. When every possible accommodation is made for everybody and someone is still unhappy, that's a problem within them.

Sebatinsky, these Muslim women don't hate men, nor do they have a problem with men. They have a problem with being looked at by them while they're exercising. It's part of the modesty that is foundational to their religion and culture. And it's not like they made up those social standards. It's not the fault of these women that they feel this way, because they are simply a product of a male-dominated culture (aren't we all?).

We don't live in a vacuum, and we live in a society that benefits men through male privilege. Even if no man has ever ogled these women in the gym before, men are still socially entitled to do so. I think you're taking privilege out of the equation and pretending that all religions and all genders on a level playing field. While none of these women may have experienced sexism at an individual level, every woman has experienced it at a grander social level. While any individual man may not be sexist on an individual level, the fact that they benefit from being male is sexist, and men as a whole aren't really doing their part in ending that privilege. And that's the difference between the sexism a woman experiences when she's afraid of the guy checking her out at the gym, and the sexism a man might feel for knowing that she's afraid. He benefits from that kind of sexism; she doesn't. He can use feminine stereotypes to explain away her fears and ignore the fact that there is such a thing as male privilege while still benefiting from it, or he can use that fear to his advantage, knowing that her fear is proof that he and other men have some sort of social control over women.

K2 said...

"Your analogy for separating Christians from gays and lesbians is indicative of heterosexism. Muslim women not wanting men to watch them work out isn't indicative of some sort of Muslim privilege that they want to exert on a Christian majority.
[...]
They have a problem with being looked at by them while they're exercising. It's part of the modesty that is foundational to their religion and culture."


For clarity, I'd like to make a distinction on this point.
Yes, actually separating Christians and homosexuals is heterosexism, whereas Christians feeling uncomfortable around and thus wanting to be separate from homosexuals is not - it's an unfortunate aspect of their religion and culture, and everyone likely agrees that they just have to deal with it as best they can.
Similarly, Muslim women feeling uncomfortable and wanting to be separate from men is not sexist, but actually separating the women and men is sexist.

(Prompted by sebatinsky: “I also don't see how it could be a feminist stance to use an overstated line of division between the sexes to choose which persons to discriminate against.”)
Additional problems/complications with male-only hours elsewhere: Couples or groups of friends (men and women) who normally work out together and can’t reschedule will be separated. Where do inter/transsexuals go? Could gay or blind men stay and would lesbians have to leave?

I would say that members of one group (Muslim women) feeling and being entitled to control the availability of resources to other groups (men, and others if men-only hours are implemented elsewhere) is wrong in principle and very much indicative of ‘privilege’. As has been said before, it’s not something that can be justified with references to freedom of religion. That the Muslim women are usually subordinate to men in the privilege hierarchy is irrelevant, as is the nature or degree of any inconvenience caused.

FEMily! said...

OK, K2. You are waaaaay reaching now. That really reminded me of what Neil Cavuto said when a viewer e-mailed his show that accommodations for a transgender elementary school child is the same as having wheelchair access ramps. Cavuto, outraged, said something like, "Are you saying that handicapped people are mentally ill?!" We all know damn well that Cavuto doesn't give a crap about physically handicapped people or transgender individuals, so his indignation wasn't genuine. Similarly, you are seemingly looking out for everyone else -- the blind, people who are transgender, gays and lesbians, BFFs. And in your supposed concern for these marginalized groups, you make the case for marginalizing another group. So I have a hard time believing that you think it's the principle of the matter.

And making the female-only hours isn't sexist for the same reason those hours are in place. Muslim women have absolutely no authority in this country to shift the paradigm of privilege to them. Women in this country live in a sexist, misogynistic society. If male privilege didn't entitle men to ogle at women, there wouldn't be a problem. If religions in general weren't patriarchal and were egalitarian, there would be no issue. You're blaming the women for a problem that was created by men and cannot be changed by women alone because of the society they grew up in that disenfranchises women. You're giving them the same power that White heterosexual Christians enjoy daily.

K2 said...

My intent in mentioning the groups I did was to point out that women/men-only hours are not without practical complications and drawbacks.

"You're blaming the women for a problem that was created by men and cannot be changed by women alone because of the society they grew up in that disenfranchises women."

I'm charging these women with the responsibility to leave whatever objections they have to the presence of members of 'Group X' at the door, just like every other person is expected to do.

The problem is an incompatibility between what these women believe is appropriate and the conduct or potential conduct of some men. I agree that both aspects source from male-dominated culture but the solution is not to discriminate against men as a group. The Muslim women have to accept that in a secular environment the men are not and should not be bound by Islamic codes of conduct and many men should likely be more respectful towards the women.

FEMily! said...

Men aren't bound by Islamic codes of conduct when a group of Muslim women (or any women) don't want men ogling them in the gym. Every man in every patriarchy is already entitled to do that, even non-Muslim men. Unless by "bound by Islamic codes of conduct" you really mean "called out on not doing anything to dismantle the patriarchy." And again, I fully support making male-only hours at another gym at the same time, but you don't seem to support that.

K2 said...

"Men aren't bound by Islamic codes of conduct when a group of Muslim women (or any women) don't want men ogling them in the gym."
Yes, but they are being bound by Islamic codes if they're forced to leave because of them, or policy created and justified by reference to them.

I agree with what you said earlier: "If male privilege didn't entitle men to ogle at women, there wouldn't be a problem."
That the men make women (Muslim and otherwise) uncomfortable by ogling them is the problem and it is the men's responsibility to not do it. That men are present in the gym (or wherever) at all is not and should not be considered a problem.

I don't support male-only hours elsewhere for two main reasons.
First, it's discriminatory. I see it as being no different to setting up something like white-only and black-only gyms/times. That everyone still has a place to exercise and any inconvenience is insignificant doesn't make it acceptable.
Second, it doesn't really fix the problem. In the sense of treating symptoms but not causes - separating men and women won't teach the men to be more respectful and women will still be made uncomfortable in other situations.

As I see it the solution is to effect societal changes that improve male conduct and will impact gyms along with everything else. Until such changes are made Muslim women will have to find some other way to exercise that doesn't involve discrimination.

Sebatinsky said...

We can't support that because it is, let me say it again, segregation.

Do you support male/female separated schools? And no, this isn't an analogy, it's an example of where the conclusions you're supporting lead.

As for "Muslim women have absolutely no authority in this country to shift the paradigm of privilege to them. Women in this country live in a sexist, misogynistic society. If male privilege didn't entitle men to ogle at women, there wouldn't be a problem," I have to point out how silly it seems to respond to male privilege by trying to create a sort of "female privilege" whereby women can remove men from places just because the women are uncomfortable in their presence. That doesn't seem like a step toward equality, or equity, which is my preferred state.


Lastly, you're still acting as though your position has something to do with keeping the first ammendment intact, and would like to emphatically state that this is untrue. Freedom of religion (which, by the way, is not an explicit right, but an implicit one, not written out in the first ammendment), is just that: the FREEDOM to practice your religion in whatever way you choose. It is NOT the right to require others to live by the rules or guidelines of your religion. That's why Muslim women are allowed to wear a hajib even when there are rules against headwear, and Muslim men are allowed to wear beards even when serving on a police force that forbids them (there are legal precedents for these things). These rights do NOT extend to disallowing women's testimony in court, just because it is Muslim tradition. Similarly, those rights do NOT extend to removing men from the gym while women exercise, despite the fact that female modesty is deeply entrenched in the Muslim faith.

FEMily! said...

I don't support male-only hours elsewhere for two main reasons.
First, it's discriminatory. I see it as being no different to setting up something like white-only and black-only gyms/times. That everyone still has a place to exercise and any inconvenience is insignificant doesn't make it acceptable. Second, it doesn't really fix the problem. In the sense of treating symptoms but not causes - separating men and women won't teach the men to be more respectful and women will still be made uncomfortable in other situations. As I see it the solution is to effect societal changes that improve male conduct and will impact gyms along with everything else. Until such changes are made Muslim women will have to find some other way to exercise that doesn't involve discrimination.


What other way to exercise that doesn't involve "discrimination" is there? Should I even bother asking if you'd support the school paying for membership at another gym, like Curves? Or should I assume that you'd believe that would be discrimination too, since the services at a private gym are probably more expensive and better than those at the school?

And when will gender equity happen? The general response from Harvard students is "assimilate or get out." The fact that these Muslim women are already pushing the boundaries of their faith and culture by sticking up for themselves is turning the assimilated majority off. Sure, it'd be ideal for people to change. That's really what the policy helps people do -- change from being selfish babies about when and where they want to work out and find more importance in helping out a disenfranchised minority. But people, especially men, aren't going to like, support, or participate in a paradigm shift where the privileges they've enjoyed for centuries are going to disappear. They aren't even willing to change their workout schedules.

FEMily! said...

Sebatinsky, the separation isn't creating female privilege. The reason the separation is needed is because of male privilege. You really think these women would rather have separate gym hours than live in a society that respected them? Of course not, but men would much rather keep the entitlement that lets them ogle women than . . . anything else.

There are no laws to preserve male or Christian privilege either, but that hasn't stopped the "assimilate or get out" attitude of the Harvard students. That's the general sentiment. Not "it's sexist." Not "that's Muslim privilege." It's "assimilate or get out." They see the problem of not enough subordination of Muslim women.