McGill University Women’s Fitness Centre Hours Debate Fails to Look Beyond the Veil

McGill University Women’s Fitness Centre Hours Debate Fails to Look Beyond the Veil

Montreal (Quebec) 21 March 2015 – Last month, two students at the McGill University Faculty of Law began an initiative to allow women to use McGill’s fitness centre in a women-only setting as part of an initiative in gender equity. As a McGill law student, I have had the chance to follow the story from the very start. It is a reality that women are underrepresented in fitness centres, and a de facto segregation occurs in weight sections where women are very much in the minority. The McGill fitness centre is no exception – I use the fitness centre regularly and have seen this for myself. For various reasons, ranging from personal preference to social anxiety and fear of harassment, many women prefer to avoid gyms altogether rather than exercise in a co-ed setting. For very similar reasons McGill University has already opted to hold women-only hours at its pool, so whether or not you agree that hours reserved exclusively for women is the proper way to deal with this, at the very least application of the policy to the fitness centre should be discussed on its merits.

Unfortunately, one of the students behind the initiative is called Soumia Allalou. Her skin is a darker shade of brown, she is Muslim, and she wears a scarf over her head. I say “unfortunately” because over the last month I have seen the proof, time and again, that this is the basis on which any idea she brings forward will be judged: not the merits of her arguments, but her ethnic origin, faith, and attire. Every article, discussion, and comment on the question has inevitably revolved around Allalou’s religion and barely even discussed her request. If she instead looked European, her feminist concerns would be at the centre of a legitimate debate on feminism and gender equity. But because of Allalou’s skin and attire, matters of legitimate gender equity requests go unmentioned; it’s just been assumed that her initiative is a shallow demand for religious accommodation, and forgoes entirely any discussion on gender equity and needs common to women of all backgrounds. What’s particularly telling is that the other student behind this initiative is Raymond Grafton, an easygoing, work-hard-play-hard guy who could be a poster boy for traditional “Canadian” values, but in most articles and discussions I’ve seen this is barely even afforded a throwaway line. I suspect Grafton’s part inconveniently blurs the pre-packaged false narrative of “yet another Muslim making religious demands to invade ‘our’ space” that handily requires no further thought.

It’s a big faculty and I can’t say we’re particularly close, and while I don’t claim to speak for her I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with Allalou on a few occasions. Allalou’s reason for needing a women-only space is indeed religiously motivated, but there are hundreds of women who echo her needs for utterly secular and completely valid reasons, like anxiety issues, fear of harassment, and unwanted sexual attention. Speaking with Allalou is no different than speaking to any other intelligent and open-minded modern woman – her vision of women-only spaces is as inclusive as possible and includes trans women and those who do not identify with a traditional gender, and her position is supported by nearly 70% of the law faculty, a progressive environment if ever there was one. The near-universal presumption that she is instead a cloistered religious fanatic – and that therefore her arguments shouldn’t be listened to – is completely unwarranted and profoundly unjust. The way she has been treated throughout this ordeal has been at times hateful, racist, Islamophobic, and completely contrary to our professed social values. It is to her absolute credit that she has taken it with such grace and stride and continues trying to have her point understood correctly.

Despite having made significant progress with the fitness centre’s administration towards a mutually-beneficial compromise that would have given a few hours of women-only access to a smaller, secluded training area with most of the same equipment as the fitness centre, the initiative was overruled by McGill’s deputy provost without any serious discussion. To those who, like me, have been following this story from the start, this feels more like an ideological decision taken in response to negative press, especially considering that the McGill University pool – in the same building as the fitness centre – already embraces a gender equity policy almost identical to what’s being asked. If that’s the case, then McGill’s administration has allowed itself to be swept up in the unjust focus on Allalou’s religion rather than the merits of her request. You may or may not agree with the initiative, but surely we should at least give her the benefit of listening to her position.

Categories: Opinion

About Author

Farnell Morisset

Farnell Morisset is passionate about discussing (among other things) the issues of modern social identity for many Québécois who, like him, feel deeply connected to the Québécois nation and culture yet do not identify with the traditional francophone non-practicing Catholic nationalist image. He has an engineering degree from Université Laval and is currently a law student at McGill University.

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