You may be aware that recently Soumia Allalou, a 23-year-old McGill University Law student, approached her student union concerning the university’s gym. Ms. Allalou was shocked to learn that there were no plans to institute women only hours at the gym and wanted this to change. According to the CBC, Allalou cited religious reasons for her request.
The request was a good one because it got people talking about religious privilege. According to Claire Stewart-Kanigan, the student union’s vice-president of university affairs:
There has been backlash saying that women should just get over it and feel comfortable around men, regardless of religious or personal reasons that lead them to feel uncomfortable. But when we are talking about religious freedom, it’s not a question of asking someone to get over it. That is asking them to give up tenets of their religious practice, which is not something that we should be standing for at McGill.
While I do not agree with the sentiment that women should “just get over it”, it appears Stewart-Kanigan is missing the larger point. Religious freedom is not under attack. No one is telling Soumia Allalou to give up her “religious practice”; no one is forcing her to give up her beliefs and it is frankly distressing to see that Stewart-Kanigan places more weight on the request simply because it is a religious one. Moreover, Soumia Allalou could be seen as imposing her religious sensibilities on other people and this is a problem. It is unfair for men to be treated like randy goats that can’t be trusted around women; it is wrong to make them feel like second class citizens, just like it was wrong to make women feel like second class citizens in accommodating Indian religious men at Pearson Airport. Indeed one petition commenter suggested that gender segregation “…is absolutely not the solution to a greater issue of inclusivity, body positivity and respect for other religions and identities.” I agree. Separating males and females stifles their shared experiences. This is no way to address gender issues.
Thankfully, many students agreed with me and after a petition was circulated, Oliver Dyens, the Deputy Provost for Student Life and Learning at McGill University denied this request and made this poignant statement: “It’s always been clear, McGill is secular and co-ed, and this is what we promote.”
I am very glad that Dyens emphasized secularism in his statement and while our society should ensure that people are comfortable, that comfort cannot come to the detriment of others and religious requests should not receive special consideration.