At the request of a small group of Muslim women, Harvard recently set women only hours at one campus gym. Not surprisingly, this has stirred up controversy in terms of both gender and religion.
This decision has been defend on the basis of tolerance and respect. For example, Ola Aljawhary, a Muslim student, claims that “The majority should be willing to compromise,” she said. “I think that’s just basic courtesy. We must show tolerance and respect for all others.”
In this case, what people are expected to tolerate is the religious beliefs of the women in question. Some Muslims believe, in varying degrees, that women must be covered in public. Since working out while fully covered would be uncomfortable, the women claim that they need to be able to work out without men being around. Since it is based on their religious beliefs, the view is that others must be tolerant of this and allow them to act in accord with their faith.
This does have a certain plausibility. Part of having a fair and just society involves respecting the views and legitimate needs of others and accommodating such needs. Tolerance is, of course, generally a virtue and is also vital in maintaining a civil society. Tolerance helps reduce conflict and allows for people who disagree to get along. Obviously, the claim that we ought to be tolerant and respectful is a moral claim and, as such, rests on the assumption that there are moral distinctions between what is good and what is evil.
While tolerance and respect are laudable, there must be limits to them. This is because to tolerate and respect all would entail drawing no distinctions between what is ethical and what is not ethical. Presumably, if male students said that they were being disrespected by being barred from the gym , then Ajawhary would not endorse granting them the respect and tolerance she claims for her view. She could, of course, reply that their request would fail to respect her view. They could, of course, make the same reply to her.
This leads to the obvious question about what should be respected and tolerated. Suppose that a group of Catholics claimed that the availability of birth control at the university clinic showed disrespect for their religion and demanded that campus be rid of such things. Given the decision made in favor of the Muslim women, then it would seem that Harvard should yield to this. After all, the basic principle seems to be the same. Those who wish to use birth control might object that this would interfere with their rights-just as men can argue that Harvard’s decision violates their rights. Obviously, Harvard would never make such a concession in regards to birth control at the behest of Catholics.
As another scenario, imagine that a group of white women claim that it goes against their deeply held belief to have black men gaze upon them. They cover themselves, as Muslim women do, but want to work out in the gym. Imagine that they go to the administration at Harvard and insist that they be given black free hours at a gym in order to work out, with their “white skin unsullied by the gaze of black men.” I think it is clear that Harvard would (rightfully) reject such a request as being racist.
But, imagine what one of the women, let us call her Betty, might say in return: Harvard allowed men to be excluded by women and hence the same principle should apply. This principle, as Betty would see it, is that one group can exclude another group from access to university gyms based on ethical or religious beliefs.
The university would probably reply back that in the case of Islam, there is a long cultural tradition, that Islam is an established religion, and so forth. The university cannot, obviously, just accommodate any belief system that people happen to have.
Betty would no doubt reply back that exclusion based on race has a long cultural tradition, that race based views are well established, and so forth.
In reply, the university would probably be forced to claim that her view is racist and racism is wrong.
Betty could, of course, reply back in all candor that the university seems to have no problem with sexism against men and hence it would have little moral ground left on which to stand while they balk at racism.
As I see it, excluding men to accommodate the sexism of Islam would be morally on par with excluding black men based on racist beliefs.
It might be argued that we should tolerate this aspect of Islam because it is a religion. However, this hardly seems to be a justification and, if it is, it would also apply to religious based racism. Sexism and racism, if evil, are evil regardless of what is used to “justify” them.
A second defense of this decision was offered by Ibrahim Hooper, speaking on behalf of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. His defense is that commercial women only gyms exist.
He is right, they do. However, his defense seems to be the fallacy of appeal to common practice. The mere fact that a practice is a common one hardly makes it right. After all, feminists claim that women are routinely paid less than men-but it hardly follows that this is right.
Exclusion based on gender certainly seems to be sexism. Well, at least when it is women being excluded. When men are excluded, then the practices are often defended. In the case of women only gyms, the appeal is generally made to the fact that women need men to be excluded because of relevant differences between men and women. If this is acceptable, then this should (on the basis of consistency) justify men excluding women or whites excluding minorities provided that they can come up with some similar reason. However, this seems to be morally questionable at best. If women are entitled to equal treatment, then so too are men. To support this, it is easy enough to dust off the old feminist arguments about the injustice of gender based exclusion and apply them now to men and not women. Oddly enough, most feminists are oddly silent when it is men being excluded. One might suspect that their commitment is not to equality but perhaps to something else.