A kerfuffle this past week. A Harvard student was unexpectedly denied entrance to the Harvard gym. The ensuing email: "Hey has anybody else been turned away from the QRAC recently because they instituted women's only hours on monday from 3-5 (also tu. and thurs. 8-10 AM)? Today I was forced to wait outside in the cold until 5 to get in because they wouldn't let me use 1 of the 10+ open machines.The policy seems sexist and discriminatory to me as there are no equivalent men only hours. Anyone know who I should get into contact with to complain about this new policy?" The debate barely got started before the Harvard Athletic Department released its official statement on the matter. In full: "These hours have been put in place for equality reasons. Whether it is for overall comfort or religious purposes we wanted to offer an opportunity for women to work out without the presence of men."
Left at that, this probably would have become yet another in a long line of arguments about what equality means, between people calling themselves feminists and other people also calling themselves feminists, and going nowhere. But it wasn't left at that. No sirree. Because, turns out, the Harvard Athletic Department's official statement was full of shit.
The real story came out shortly thereafter, in an email from a member of the Harvard Islamic Society. Her explanation: "Harvard Islamic Society, the student group on campus which I am very involved with petitioned for the women only hours (I think the hours are offered no more than once or twice a week). The reason for that is many hijabis (muslim women who wear the headscarf) really wanted to have an opportunity to work out in an environment where they did not have to wear the headpiece or the really long baggy sweats to cover up all parts of their body (as many of you may know, it is rather difficult and unpleasant). Our organization has been talking to the athletic department for a while now and finally, this year they let us do it. Interestingly, the interest was not only coming from the muslim women, but later on some jewish and christian women joined in. The purpose of institutions of those hours was not at all to offend/discriminate against men, but rather give an opportunity to women with certain strict religious obligations to work out in a more comfortable environment. "
So, yeah, wonderful. A great big thanks to the Jewish and Christian women who collaborated.
If only they would have extended this to the classroom as well. I can't tell you the number of mornings I would have loved to have been barred from attending my compsci lecture. "I'm sorry, Prof Roberts, but I just can't enter this room and impose my degraded Western values upon the other students. I'll be in the gym -um, I mean, the student lounge - no, wait, not from nine to eleven, damn - okay, just going back to my room, I'll copy Fatima's notes later."
It is a real shame, though, that working out while covered like Dracula at the beach can be "difficult and unpleasant." I wonder, how could a woman doing the stairmaster in a burlap sack feel more comfortable? A hard one, I know. I'll leave it up to Islamic scholars to figure out, though my guess is that the answer probably involves stones.