Harvard University, women-only gyms, and anti-religious bigotry

By | March 5, 2008

Harvard University is in hot water over its decision to schedule women-only hours at one of its gyms to accommodate requests from women Muslim students whose religious beliefs prohibit them from working out in front of men in exercise wear.

Harvard has scheduled only six women-only hours per week, out of the seventy hours the gym is open. The gym at which these hours are scheduled is the least convenient and least used gym on campus. There are many women who prefer to work out in a women-only environment for reasons which have nothing to do with their religion.

Unbelievably, despite all this, people are still protesting.

Men and women are different. Men will always ogle and hit on women, and women will always feel uncomfortable being ogled. This is why there are women-only fitness clubs and women-only hours at co-ed fitness clubs and swimming pools. The women who claim it’s sexist to have women-only hours that other women want are the same women who are offended that in the post-feminist era, some women have the gall to choose to stay home and raise their children.

However, there is a more subtle issue here. If the request for women-only hours had come from women who just want to exercise without being ogled, then there would surely be less complaining. A good deal of the complaining is motivated by religious intolerance. Not just generic religious intolerance, mind you, but specifically intolerance against Muslims.

Why should Jews care about this? For one thing, Jews are well aware that the winds of intolerance can shift on a moment’s notice. Fighting bigotry and prejudice against all religions helps keep us free to practice ours in peace as well.

Furthermore, the request at Harvard could just have easily come from observant Jewish women, who observe practices of dress similar to observant Muslims. (Well, it could have come from Jewish women if it weren’t for the fact that centuries of anti-Semitism at Harvard have cowed most of the Jews there into submission, but that’s a topic for a different time.)

Kudos to the feminists who had the self-confidence and self-respect to ask Harvard to accommodate their needs, and kudos to Harvard for displaying religious tolerance by doing so!


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