Harvard University’s trial policy of denying men use of one of its gyms for six hours a week to accommodate Muslim women has been an exercise in frustration for some students and off-campus critics.
Since Feb. 4, the Quadrangle Recreational Athletic Center at the Ivy League school has been open only to women from 8-10 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 3-5 p.m. on Mondays — allowing Muslim women, who typically cover their hair and most of their skin to follow religious and cultural code, to dress more suitably for exercising.
Hussein Ibish, executive director of the Foundation for Arab-American Leadership, said complaints that the policy is unfair are unfounded.
“It’s about expanding the range of choices,” Ibish told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer on Monday. “Women, for all kinds of reasons, don’t want to exercise in front of men. It’s a minority of women, but there are.
This modesty business sometimes comes from religion, sometimes from culture … They just don’t want to be ogled by men when they’re working out.”
Michael Smerconish, a talk show host and author of “Muzzled: From T-Ball to Terrorism — True Stories That Should Be Fiction,” countered that the rule shows “political correctness run amok again at Harvard.”
“Six individuals out of 6,000 [students] complain,” Smerconish told Lauer. “Those six had access [to the campus gyms] and Harvard’s response is to institute a discriminatory practice where now half are closed out of the gym.”
Working it out
In January, a group of six Muslim women, with the backing of the Harvard College Women’s Center, requested specified hours to utilize the gym.
The Quadrangle Athletic Center is one of three large recreational facilities on the Cambridge, Mass., campus and the main home for intramural activities. There are 12 residential houses that also have workout facilities. And the women-only hours at Quadrangle account for just six of the 70 hours the gym is open per week.
Yet there have been many student complaints and an unfavorable editorial in Harvard’s Crimson newspaper.
Other student publications across the country have also expounded on the controversial ruling.
But Robert Mitchell, communications director of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts, said many accommodations for students’ religious needs have been made in the past — including prayer areas for Hindu and Muslim students and the rescheduling of exams during religious holidays.
The policy will be re-evaluated at the end of the current semester.
Smerconish said Harvard’s decision to allow specified access to the Muslim women was a by-product of a national hysteria involving the Muslim population.
“The hysteria results in Harvard bending over for the Muslim community — something they would never do for Catholics or for Jews,” he said.
“Mr. Ibish talks about the element of ogling or looking at these women. What does that veil say about the rest of us? It says our eyes cannot be trusted because we’ll leer at those women. Let them work out like everybody else.”
Ibish angrily retorted that the Harvard’s action was nondiscriminatory.
“You can’t convince me that this is going to be an onerous discrimination of the oppressed males of Harvard,” Ibish said. “This is just a very small concession, a few hours in one gym out of many, to allow some women who want to exercise in private. Under the law, no way is this discriminatory.”
Smerconish and Ibish agreed that fair play could come in the form of a corresponding gym allowing only male-access hours. But the mutuality stopped there.
“It would never happen and you know it,” he told Ibish.
“If men wanted it, it would,” Ibish responded.