Sweatin' the Quran
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I was all geared up to write a column fulminating against Harvard for setting up women-only hours in one of its gyms because apparently some Muslim women students felt more comfortable exercising away from the eyes of men. Kowtowing to religion! Validating Islam's obsession with female -- and only female -- modesty! Denial of equal gym time to men! When I was an undergraduate, Harvard kept women out of all sorts of good stuff, like convenient places to eat on campus. Until a year before I got there, women were banned from centrally located Lamont Library, supposedly to discourage canoodling in the stacks. All the gyms on campus were single-sex back then, not that I knew where they were. In short, I'm very conscious of the ways single-sex arrangements have historically given men the lion's share of whatever is being divvied up.
Unfortunately for my life as a casuist, I made the mistake of asking my ever-sensible daughter and her friend Lindsey, both college juniors, what they thought. They thought women-only gym time was fine. "It's only six hours a week, Mom," said Sophie. "And the gym is the least used one on campus." What about the principle? "I think it's hard to be a Muslim girl in a co-ed school," Sophie answered. "If this makes it easier, they should have it." "Well, I don't know that it's especially hard for them," Lindsey put in -- here followed a lengthy discussion of the social lives of Muslim and Orthodox Jewish girls. But say you were a male student, I asked, and you showed up to work out at girls-only time? "Well, I would just come back later," said Sophie, or go to another gym. Honestly, Mom, what's the big deal?" So it doesn't bother you that Harvard is making a special arrangement because of religion? "Well, it isn't really doing that," Lindsey said, "because any woman student can use the women-only hours, and Muslim women don't have to use them if they don't want to."
Right. Why hadn't I thought of that? The Harvard gym controversy looks like it's about religion, but really it's about whether women (or men) should have a little bit of separate space in a co-ed university.
But that's not so exciting. Few would be writing about this handful of single-sex gym hours if the request had come from, say, overweight women or shy women or the club of virgins recently written about in the New York Times Magazine. Some co-ed campuses have single-sex dorms -- Cornell has one for women -- to say nothing of sororities, fraternities and single-sex societies like Harvard's ghastly final clubs. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education , Orthodox Jewish women at Queens College of CUNY asked for one hour of women-only swimming, a request seconded by other women; now Queens has a weekly pool hour for women and one for men as well. Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, St. John's College in Santa Fe, and Kalamazoo College have all experimented with women-only gym times or classes. None of this has aroused a lot of interest from the national opinion industry. Maybe the women writers are too busy exercising at Curves, the ubiquitous women-only chain, while the men writers are off at their Elks lodge.
But this situation is different: it involves Islam (violent, oppressive, sexist) and Harvard (multicultural twits). When I put "Harvard Muslim girls gym" into Google I got 151,000 hits, including articles from as far away as Japan, and bloodcurdling references to Sharia and honor killings, horrified descriptions of women using treadmills in veils and chadors ("a black, woolen blob, an anachronism of the first degree"), calls for lawsuits and physical invasions of Muslim-girl gym time. Martin Luther King was invoked, as were Title IX, feminism, slippery slopes, appeasement, Nazis and did I mention Sharia?
Well, I shouldn't be so superior, because some of those thoughts went through my mind, too. That is what living in our time does to you: intelligent people go in a flash from "Art history major wants to work out in peace" to "What about those gays they executed in Iran?" One minute Martin Amis is turning out a stream of smart, ambitious novels; the next he's writing about Muslims taking over because Europeans don't have enough babies. I get e-mails every day from people who have been driven round the bend by fear and contempt and self-righteousness. To them, a housewife in a head scarf might as well be a suicide bomber; a taxi driver listening to an Arabic station is probably getting tips on how to murder his sister. It's as if all their lives they've been waiting for a socially acceptable hate-object to come along so they could enjoy the psychological satisfactions of racism without technically being racist.
Yes, terrible crimes against women, gays and secularists are committed in the name of Islam; yes, many Muslim countries have poor human rights records; yes, Muslim fundamentalists say, and sometimes do, horrible things. I've never favored the kind of multiculturalism that looks impassively on the abuse of women because "it's their culture." I was appalled by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams's proposal for separate Sharia courts for British Muslims and by Noah Feldman's support for that idea in The New York Times Magazine : that seems like a recipe for denying Muslim women equal treatment in divorce and other family matters. But what does any of this have to do with Muslim women at Harvard? They weren't taken out of school at puberty to cook and clean, like the home-schooled Pakistani girls in California featured in a recent news story; they aren't being shipped off to the old country to marry their cousins; I doubt very much if their college plan is to have ten children and bring the caliphate to Martin Amis's neighborhood. You might as well say that Harvard's Catholic students have all been molested by priests and will go on to abuse children too. Except nobody does say that.
I'm not totally sold on single-sex gyms. To be fair, there should be equal single-sex time for men as well. Maybe that's a good idea -- not only women are shy about their bodies -- although it might mean, in practice, that men get the better hours and facilities, because separate usually doesn't mean equal. But let's get a grip. Osama bin Laden and burqas and fascism have nothing to do with six hours a week of man-free exercise time for any female student, regardless of race, creed or national origin.
Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation.