I was browsing through the pages of The Toronto Star a few weeks ago when I came across an obituary for the late Helen Morley, written by staff reporter Marco Chown Oved. The sentence that caught my eye is as follows: “As a young woman, she was one of only two women in her class at Oxford Medical School, where she said lecturers demanded she sit facing their backs.” For reasons that are self-explanatory, in my mind this hearkened back to one of your more vigorous op-eds entitled “Common sense isn’t homogeneous” (Feb. 3, 2014). You may recall that your article concerned the notorious case of the anonymous York U student who had asked his professor for an exception from group work involving women due to his religious prohibitions. The professor refused, but the university’s governing body disagreed, effectively pitting the professor’s academic freedom against the administrative policies of the institution. You sided with the student, insisting that calling this scenario gender-based discrimination is a red herring. I beg to disagree, but only insofar as I believe that the situation is not done justice by a simple reduction to a label.
You begin with your own experiences of being refused a handshake by a hijab-wearing woman because of her religious restrictions, drawing a comparison between this and the York U case. I would argue that they are different cases altogether. While being unable to shake hands, you could still interact with the woman in question—she didn’t avoid the social interaction, as long as it wasn’t physical. You were thus able to connect with a fellow student on campus in a way that neither denied you the dignity of being heard and responded to, nor compromised her piety. The York U student, on the other hand, was effectively saying that he is unable to socially interact with more than 50 percent of the population due to his religious restrictions, and that this “disability” of his should be accommodated. I do not doubt his sincerity; to the legitimacy of his religious requirements I cannot speak, not sharing his faith, but what seems starkly obvious to me is that even if he views his request as having nothing to do with gender-based discrimination, that is not how I and many other Canadians view it. Thus the case has to do with differing interpretations of the student’s request.
For example, you write that “his request wasn’t necessarily because they’re women […] it would be because they were of opposite genders.” Indeed, and although, strictly speaking, the request is not misogynist to someone who shares this student’s faith, where presumably both genders are discouraged from having contact with each other, that is not how it comes across to the rest of us. I do think that the majority of us women do not believe that we should concern ourselves with how someone else’s religion views us, least of all on a university campus.
Physical intimacy (such as a handshake) is one thing, but public group work is another, and no student should be allowed to refuse group work with another person on a secular university campus based on his or her religious beliefs. Because women form an integral part of Canadian society, of a Canadian university, I argue that it is simply unacceptable to use one’s religious requirements to refuse all social contact with them.
Now let me remind everyone of the great country we live in, and of its history. There was the suffragette movement, the two waves of feminism, yet now there still is the continuously pervasive inequality that Canadian women experience when it comes to salary disparities, workplace harassment, etc. We have certainly been made aware of the student in question’s religious views, but I do wonder if he was ever made aware of the hefty baggage that the term “gender equality” carries in the West. In the words of Dow Marmur, rabbi emeritus at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple, and a man I do not always agree with: “Gender equality must not be a lesser value than freedom to practise one’s religion. But when the two clash, should the demands of a small minority take precedence over the rights of more than half the population?” Mind you, he means “gender equality” in the way that the majority of Canadians understand it, and thus it is precisely because this is Canada, a liberal democracy where institutions are indeed secular environments, that we cannot leave York U’s decision (or your op-ed) unchallenged. What the York U student does not realize is that his demand infringed not only on the women’s convenience and comfort, but on the very spirit of this country’s law, which states that men and women are equal before the law, and by extension cannot be excluded or accorded special treatment by virtue of their gender, regardless of what one’s religion may say.
Editor’s note: My view is also totally in favour of equality; I think the question of intimacy, not superiority, is probably at the heart of the tenet. However, if you mean that practising this restriction is not acceptable in Canada because of the offensive cultural nuances it recalls to most of us, you may have a point.