In reality, the female-only gym hours represent a legitimate move by the administration to accommodate a minority, whether people of a particular a religion, race, gender or ethnicity. Harvard University offers Kosher food, has special prayer areas for certain religious groups, and in general has tried to be flexible with the needs of its students. EDITOR'S NOTE: In an effort to accommodate female Muslim students, Harvard University recently decided to mandate female-only hours at one of the campus gyms. The decision has provoked much discussion from both ends of the spectrum. In this editorial, a Muslim student from Harvard University weighs in on the issue.
Recently, much ink has been spilled in criticism of the Harvard QRAC's female gym hours. Some argue that it impinges on the rights of the majority, and others argue that it is discriminatory against men. The real reason that this issue has received widespread media attention is that it raises the greater question of Islam in the West, "clash of civilizations", and whether this is part of a plot for Muslims to bring Sharia law on campus. Isolated from the "Muslim factor" that clouds the debate over the female-only hours, the gym hours is a legitimate and commendable exercise of university accommodation of the needs of some Muslim and non-Muslim women.
An underlying reason for the outcry against female-gym hours is that people are scared; about one-fifth of Americans would not like to have a Muslim as a neighbor. The media has been feeding off of that fear, as an Internet search of "Harvard's female-only gym hours" suggests. In reality, this is not an effort of Muslim students to implement Sharia law on campus. Is Curves a female-only gym because it is implementing Sharia law? Obviously not. These gyms accommodate females who feel more comfortable working out amongst other females. This female-only hours issue is only a clash of civilizations for those who are making it into a clash of civilizations issue.
In reality, the female-only gym hours represent a legitimate move by the administration to accommodate a minority, whether people of a particular a religion, race, gender or ethnicity. Harvard University offers Kosher food, has special prayer areas for certain religious groups, and in general has tried to be flexible with the needs of its students. The very process by which these hours were instituted represents the university's commitment to meet the needs of their students. Six girls, Muslim and non-Muslim, requested some female only hours. The administration found the least used Harvard gym, the QRAC, and worked with the Harvard College Women's Center to set up a time that would not disrupt intramural activities and that would work for interested girls. The director of the Women's Center decided to ask Ola Aljawhary (Class of 2009) what time would work for Muslim females who would be interested. Then Aljawhary sent an email asking Muslim girls if they would be interested in working out during these female-only hours. If the female-only gym hours had been implemented without Muslim female involvement, I doubt CNN, FOX, CBS News, the New York Times, MSNBC, and others would have reported this as a controversial issue.
Some news sources ridicule the University for accommodating some Muslim girls who do not want to work out in their full-sleeved clothing. However, this is not an issue of putting on or taking off clothes, but of modesty and personal preference. This is an issue that also transcends religion; many women prefer to work out when there are not men around, and many gyms have made accommodations for women for this specific reason. Curves, the largest fitness franchise in the world, is a female-only gym, and Gold's Gym has a "women's only area" to create a more comfortable environment for females to exercise.
A few sources have not stated the "Muslim factor" as a concern and protest instead that female-only hours discriminate against men, an odd presumption to make, considering that the Harvard College Women's Center and other initiatives to cater to female needs have not faced the torrent of criticism of the QRAC's female gym hours. If someone were to opine that the non-existence of male-only gym hours makes the female-only gym hours discriminatory, the simple answer to that is that no men requested male-only hours. If such a request were made to the administration, and rejected, only then would this argument have any ground.
We are not sacrificing our American principles and our way of life because of these gym hours. In fact, the current gym hours system is democratic, because the majority has the majority of hours, but out of sheer respect and decency for minority rights, it should not be a problem for us to allocate a few female-only hours. Instead of criticizing the administration for being brainwashed by Muslims, we should commend them for their accommodation of women on campus, Muslim or otherwise, a courtesy expected to be found in a prestigious university. As aforementioned, the Muslim role, albeit small and exaggerated by the media, is the main reason the administration has been criticized for its institution of the female-only hours. This shows the need for greater dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims to address much of the Islamophobia that leads criticism of people or institutions that are perceived as "Muslim-friendly". Perhaps then more people would recognize the Harvard administration's act for what it was – a legitimate accommodation for a minority.
Nafees Syed is a member of the Harvard Crimson Editorial Board and an editor of the Harvard-MIT academic journal Ascent. She is also a Civil Liberties Policy Group Chair at the Harvard Institute of Politics.