I have just learned of a request by a student to be excused from participating in certain aspects of a course at York University because his involvement would require him to associate with women. Apparently, being with women in public violates his religious beliefs. At the beginning of the term, he appealed to Professor Paul Grayson to excuse him from working with female students in group work scheduled for the class.
The professor initially felt compelled to refuse the request, but on second thought he passed the request on to the dean of the University. Surprisingly, the dean allowed the exclusion request. The director of the University’s Centre for Human Rights also supported the student’s right to accommodation for religious reasons.
While the professor and the student came to a mutually acceptable solution to the student’s problem, there is incredulity over the University’s official position in which they deferred to what many see as a very unreasonable request. In addition, many fear that this truly represents the University’s willingness to allow for a negative view of women and worry what this could lead to down the road.
Why was the dean of the university compelled to allow the student’s request? Does this indicate a need for a change in policy, since religious rights trumped the University’s policy that forbids discrimination based on gender? Or, as seems more likely, does it require examination of the dispositions of University administrators who are in danger of blindly embracing a culture of accommodation with regard to appeals for exceptional treatment?
Such requests may increase in the future, although that seems hard to believe. The religion of the student was not disclosed, but it must certainly be true that the student is involved in a very strict fundamentalist sect that could be an off-shoot of a major religious tradition. Since fundamentalism in all religions appears to be on the rise, it is quite possible that such requests for gender segregation could increase in the future.
What will secular institutions be able to do to confront and deny these requests if they do not change their policies now?
Where there are lists of human rights that demand protection in social institutions, there are hierarchies within which those rights are deemed to have relative value. Some rights can trump others, if they are an appeal to protection of a right that is higher on the scale than another right. We cannot rest on our laurels with respect to gender rights in Canada and we cannot be naive about where, on the hierarchy of rights, the right of females to equal treatment in our social institutions rests. This is especially true in many religions, where defining women’s rights to participate in certain aspects of society becomes enshrined in complex belief systems.
The ratio of female to male students in university populations has experienced a constant trend towards increasing numbers of female students. It will be increasingly difficult, therefore, for university administrators to accommodate requests for special treatment that allow for compromise or relaxing of gender rights in order to accommodate discriminatory views of women.
From one perspective, it might be said that this student is simply closing himself off from interaction that should be part of a full student experience, so he’s the one who will suffer from the exclusion while women won’t be affected. From that perspective this is true, but there is more to the story. The university has communicated a message that it will tolerate challenges to the practice of gender equality as it is understood to be applicable in the university setting. Part of that message clearly communicates that, at least in some cases it is acceptable to discriminate against women.
When is it acceptable for an educational (or any other Canadian social institution) to allow men or women to use religion to override the human rights afforded to all Canadian citizens regardless of gender or sexual orientation? The answer should be “never.”
Thankfully, the professor found a way, through discourse and dialogue within his department, to deny the student’s request even though it means possible disciplinary action from his employer.
It is time for University administrators to sit down and carefully go over their policies and to close any loopholes that can be used to discriminate against anyone. This is a frontier issue in Canada’s pioneer movement towards full acceptance of women as equal citizens who, by law and by custom, are entitled to enjoy full human rights in a free democratic society.
Every policy statement should also ensure that even actions that indirectly imply anyone’s unequal status are unacceptable. Along with policy, we need careful interpretation of policy. Close the loopholes and do it now.