Note: This op-ed was originally published as a letter to the editor in the Montreal Gazette on March 25, 2015.
On March 19, McGill University decided it would not establish women-only hours at McGill’s fitness centre.
The request for women-only hours was initiated by two students, Soumia Allalou and Raymond Grafton. While Ms Allalou wears the hijab, she has maintained that her request also takes into account the many non-religious reasons for which she and other women at McGill would welcome the establishment of women-only hours.
As a female McGill student, I can stand by those non-religious reasons: I’d love to go to the gym and not have to worry about whether the guys will give me a chance to get at the weights; it would be great to work out without a man giving me unsolicited advice on my form. Moreover, women can be and are sexually harassed by men everywhere, and our sweaty, skimpy gyms are certainly not an exceptional little bubble.
To women whose reasons for wanting “segregated” gym hours are not related to religion, McGill is saying that encouraging women to use its facilities in full comfort and safety – for a mere few hours a week, even — is simply not as important as making sure men can use those facilities whenever they want. It’s certainly not okay, but it’s not like women aren’t used to being told, in direct and indirect ways, that our needs aren’t as important as men’s. That’s a really old story.
But what is McGill saying, exactly, to the women whose faith requires them to dress modestly when men are present, particularly women for whom that faith happens to be Islam? The land that almost saw the PQ’s “Charter of Values” come to fruition has recently seen a judge refuse to hear a defendant in her courtroom who wanted to testify wearing a hijab. In 2013, we collectively freaked out when we saw a photo of two niqab-wearing women working in a Quebec daycare. In 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada gave us a watery decision on the right of a witness to wear the niqab while testifying in court: the witness was ultimately re-ordered to remove her niqab to testify. The effective messages: take off your hijab, or don’t work in the public sector. Take off the niqab, or don’t testify. Troubling, too, is the potential effective message to Zunera Ishaq, the woman who wants to wear her niqab during the oath-taking portion of her Canadian citizenship ceremony: take off your niqab, or don’t become Canadian.
These Muslim women, then, are being told they’re not welcome in a lot of places as long as they choose to respect their faith. Is that what McGill intended to tell such women – that on top of all that, they’re also not welcome in its gym?
There are always those voices, often loud, that say that the hijab, the niqab, the burqa, and other forms of dress worn by Muslim women are nothing but manifestations of how Islam oppresses, excludes, and erases women from public life. Ironically, it looks more and more like our “secular” institutions are the ones that seek to erase these women from public spaces.