Illustration of a woman standing at a gym entrance with a sign indicating men are not allowed


Women Only?

Shades of intention and effect in Harvard’s gym-hours controversy.

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Andrea Useem

What happens at Harvard certainly does not stay at Harvard, as demonstrated in late January this year when the College’s agreement to create women-only gym hours for Muslim women students made national headlines. The news coverage, of course, was far out of proportion to the issue itself: whether men’s access to a lightly used university athletic facility should be barred for six hours a week. The debate on the blogosphere was hot and vicious, some of it reflecting deep fears of multiculturalism. Wrote one conservative Christian blogger, “This is just the first step in surrendering, and that surrender will ultimately involve everything it means to be an American.”

While it’s easy to blame such responses on Islamophobia or knee-jerk Harvard-hating, the issues at stake—Islamic law, women’s rights, and religious accommodation—are not easily resolved. As a Muslim and former graduate adviser to the Harvard Islamic Society, I find my own sympathies surprisingly mixed.

The first problem in considering the gym debacle is how to frame it. The University is, of course, private, so none of the First Amendment issues of religion in the public square apply. “The question in this case is not about what’s legal—it’s about what is the right thing to do,” says Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.–based program focused on freedoms of speech, religion, and the press.

To Haynes, a 1975 graduate of Harvard Divinity School, the accommodation on the gym hours is a positive one. “It shows Harvard is committed to liberty of conscience, which is a core principle of American democracy,” he says. “The fact that they are willing to look for a reasonable accommodation says to Muslim students: ‘We care about you being a part of this community.'”

Kevin (Seamus) Hasson, chairman of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C., pointed out two years ago in a speech defending the right of pharmacists to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions that honoring freedom of conscience is often “inconvenient” for the majority. “It may be inconvenient with military operations if somebody’s not willing to fight, [or] if somebody’s not willing to take an oath or get vaccinated,” he said. “But overall, conscience and moral principles are good things for society.”

Knowing that the inconvenient truths of conscience are hallowed American traditions, then, I want to be someone who defends conscience, and of course I feel for my Muslim brothers and sisters at Harvard, who, like Muslims elsewhere, face a lot of hostility toward their religious beliefs. Wearing a headscarf or dressing modestly is a struggle, and Muslims deserve support. But at the same time, I hesitate to endorse the College’s decision as a symbol of religious accommodation. Where will the line be drawn when it comes to religious law and Islamic law in particular? And is comfort the same thing as conscience?

A commenter at the Boston Herald website wrote on the topic: “Harvard isn’t accommodating Muslim women, many of whom already work out at the co-ed gym with no trouble. Harvard is accommodating the fundamentalists who believe in separation of the sexes and that women can’t be in the company of men who aren’t family members.” Now, women who wear headscarves or prefer women-only spaces are not wild-eyed fundamentalists. If they are like the Muslim women I knew at Harvard, they are smart, independent, and thoughtful, even while exploring and upholding their faith. But their insistence on modest dress and a certain level of sex-segregation does refer back to classical Islamic law, and there is no getting around the fact that some aspects of that law are problematic, especially when it comes to women. What if, for example, Muslim male students requested gym hours when they could exercise without the presence of women?

Modest dress and sex-segregation refer back to classical Islamic law, and there is no getting around the fact that some aspects can be problematic.

Such a request would seem repugnant on the face of it, yet it would be undergirded by the exact same interpretation of Islamic modesty that the Muslim women have referred to. Should the College grant such a male request, on the same basis that they have granted the female request?

Bloggers and online commentators have painted other troubling scenarios: What if a group of conservative religious students were “uncomfortable” living in a dorm with openly gay peers and requested homosexual-free housing? Or sex-segregated classrooms? What if Orthodox Jewish men did not want to share chairs with menstruating women and asked for men-only chairs?

For Haynes, these slippery-slope scenarios are not scary: Each must be worked out on a case-by-case basis, relying on the principle of “reasonable accommodation,” he says. In other words, if it’s going to cost a lot or have a heavy impact on others, the answer is no. To Haynes and those who support the women-only gym hours, the burden on other students is not so large that it outweighs the benefits of making life easier for Muslim women.

But if conscience and religious conviction demand accommodation, then I wonder if the issue here rises to the level of conscience. As the Boston Herald commenter pointed out, Muslim women at all levels of religious observance are free to use all the Harvard athletic facilities, and of course many do. Might it be more comfortable for them to be able to work out in more revealing clothes, or to know that a guy isn’t checking them out (or vice versa)? Obviously the answer is yes, or they wouldn’t be asking. But does that increased comfort level really rise to the level of conscience? In this case, I think not.

Sadly, an opportunity was missed here. As liberal Muslim blogger Ali Eteraz has pointed out, women-only gyms are very popular, as demonstrated by the popularity of the Curves franchise, and the Muslim women at Harvard could have saved a lot of grief by building a meaningful coalition with other female students, both religious and nonreligious, who want a comfortable women-only athletic space at Harvard. Instead they made their request on the basis of adherence to gender norms of Islamic law, norms I hope, in the end, that Harvard will not endorse through accommodation.

Andrea Useem, who received a master of theological studies degree from Harvard Divinity School in 2001, is a journalist who specializes in reporting on religion. She is also a publisher of the website

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