On Women, Religion and York University

10 Jan

When I first heard about the student at York University who asked to be excused from a group project for religious reasons, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I’m still not, to be perfectly honest.

The student, whose name is being withheld for privacy reasons, enrolled in an online sociology course. After learning that he would have to participate in an in-person student-run focus group as part of the course, he sent the following email to his professor, J Paul Grayson:

“One of the main reasons that I have chosen internet courses to complete my BA is due to my firm religious beliefs. It will not be possible for me to meet in public with a group of women (the majority of my group) to complete some of these tasks.”

Grayson forwarded the email to his faculty’s dean and the director of the school’s Centre for Human Rights, expecting that the student (who the university is referring to as Mr. X when speaking with the media) would have his request denied. Grayson was shocked when the student’s request was permitted, with the reasoning being that students who studied abroad were given the same accommodation when it came to in-person meetings.

Grayson’s response was as follows:

“York is a secular university. It is not a Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Moslem university. In our policy documents and (hopefully) in our classes we cling to the secular idea that all should be treated equally, independent of, for example, their religion or sex or race.

Treating Mr. X equally would mean that, like other students, he is expected to interact with female students in his group.”

Although the the dean ruled that an exception should be made in the case of Mr. X, Grayson and the other professors in his department passed a motion refusing any student accommodations if they marginalize another student, a faculty member or a teaching assistant.

The student, whose religion has not been disclosed, did end up participating in the group project, and writing Professor Grayson that,

“I cannot expect that everything will perfectly suit what I would consider an ideal situation. I will respect the final decision, and do my best to accommodate it. I thank you for the way you have handled this request, and I look forward to continuing in this course.”

In spite of this fact, Grayson may wind up facing disciplinary action for disregarding the dean’s ruling and creating a new departmental policy.


Before I get into the meat of this issue, I have to admit that there are a few things about the story that strike me as being odd.

First of all, I honestly can’t think of a major religion that forbids men from meeting in public with a group of women. Even the most orthodox sects of Christianity, Judaism and Islam that I am aware of do not have such restrictions. And seriously, if this restriction existed, how would you even function in the world? How would you go to the grocery store or the bank or even leave your house if you cannot share a public space with women? And while I understand that it would be possible to set up a religious community where total public avoidance of women would, technically, be possible, it seems odd that someone from such a community would seek an education at a secular university.

It also seems strange that someone with such strict religious beliefs would be so quick to set them aside and participate in the group project once they realized that they were not going to get their way. Surely if your religious sect was so adamant about you not meeting publicly with women, you would fight even just a little bit harder to avoid that?

A third point that seems worth mentioning is that most organized religions (especially Judeo-Christian religions) do not restrict the activities of men; rather, they tend to marginalize and even oppress women. This isn’t to say that all religions everywhere are anti-woman, but rather that in most major religions the interests of men are typically elevated above those of women.

Maybe I’m much too cynical, but I honestly can’t help wondering if Mr. X, a student enrolled in a sociology course at a secular university, decided to organize his own sociological experiment – both to see how far he could push student accommodations made for religious reasons, and to stir up the media. It’s pretty easy to put the feminist blogosphere into a frenzy (and this is said by someone who participates heavily in the feminist blogosphere), and I could definitely see someone getting their kicks that way. If that’s the case, then Mr. X has wasted York University’s time and money, as well as putting a professor’s career in jeopardy.

But let’s assume that this isn’t some sort of hoax. Let’s assume that a student is making a legitimate, religious-based request to not have to work with women. Let’s assume that Mr. X’s religion, whatever religion that might be, actually does forbid him from meeting women in public.

Actually, you know what? Regardless of whether the student’s request is legitimate, let’s talk about the fact that certain people quite high up in the university’s food chain were willing to grant the accommodation that the student was seeking. Even if this was some kind of covert sociological study, let’s talk about how quickly York University was willing to throw Mr. X’s female classmates under the bus in order to make life easier for him. A secular university – I seriously cannot stress that point enough – was more than willing to make an exception based on a religious belief that women were ultimately so different from men that the two genders could not interact in public.

I wonder how differently the university would have reacted had Mr. X’s email read something like this:

“One of the main reasons that I have chosen internet courses to complete my BA is due to my firm religious beliefs. It will not be possible for me to meet in public with a group of homosexuals (the majority of my group) to complete some of these tasks.”

Or this:

“One of the main reasons that I have chosen internet courses to complete my BA is due to my firm religious beliefs. It will not be possible for me to meet in public with a group of Muslims (the majority of my group) to complete some of these tasks.”

Would they have been so quick to accommodate the student and cite religious freedom in either of those cases? I’m going to wager that they probably wouldn’t. So why is it any different where women are concerned?

Let’s consider, too, what the end result of such requests could be. One potential outcome could be the creation of male-only academic spaces – as if the dearth of women in academics isn’t already a problem. Another could be the physical separation of men and women in the classroom, perhaps divided by a curtain the way it’s done in certain orthodox synagogues. Whatever we can imagine, it would certainly be a step backwards for our nominally secular country.

Objectively, it will be fascinating to see how this plays out, both in the long and short terms. I’m interested to learn what, if any, consequences Grayson will face for his actions. I’m also interested to see what other religious accommodations will be requested after this incident, and which of those will be granted. Most of all, I’m interested in seeing what impact this will have in the long run on women in academics. Because I can’t imagine that this case bodes well for the rights of women in higher learning.


28 Responses to “On Women, Religion and York University”

  1. The British Asian Blog January 10, 2014 at 8:24 pm #

    Although I am in agreement with you – what was incomplete in your post was the justification of why such individual’s religion does not permit participating where large groups of women or opposite sex are present. This, of course, may be because the information was available or provided – this therefore allows me to question whether we can make assumption on behalf of something we fully don’t know the facts of.

    • bellejarblog January 10, 2014 at 8:27 pm #

      No justification was provided. I’m pretty firmly of the opinion, though, that no matter what the justification, I’m not going to be on board with the idea.

      • The British Asian Blog January 10, 2014 at 8:32 pm #

        Your point is understandable, and I agree if I may say so. I do, however, putting aside my opinion would still be intrigued to know what the justification was. For me, religion is something I respect, like I would respect the law of the land in which I live in or travel through. Laws, much like religion can vary from one place to another – and as such – knowing the reasons behind a statement or action is just as important.

      • nina luz January 10, 2014 at 9:36 pm #

        Bellejar, UniversitiesUK and most of the Russell Group universities in the UK have OK’ed gender segregated audiences for certain events (though still not, as yet, for classes). Provided, some add, that there is a non-segregated area for those who refuse to sit with their own segregated gender, This is ridiculous. But it is happening. Frighteningly. I wonder however what would happen if people took a stand: 20 odd years ago, some top notch expert on his subject refused to cross the threshold of the room where his audience, composed exclusively of doctoral students and teaching stuff of a university department, was seated, patiently waiting for him to turn up to deliver a paper. He would not speak to a non-gender segregated audience, we were informed. A sururu went through the room, and his ‘minder’ was briefly informed of his two choices: either deliver the paper to an unsegregated audience, or to an empty room. With his minder consent, he delivered the paper. In the end, we all walked out. He never got any discussion, any feedback, any peer respect. His minder was like a frantic chicken trying to stop us from leaving.

        I am inclined towards a student hoax – saw a few of the kind in my time. But whatever the justification – scratch that: there’s no justification whatsoever for the Dean’s actions. Shame, shame, shame on him.

  2. syropae January 10, 2014 at 8:32 pm #

    I enjoyed this post and was shocked that a secular university in Canada, one that is known for its women studies and gender studies program would accommodate that. As you said, lets replace ‘woman’ with ‘chinese’ or ‘black’ or ‘jewish’ and I would think that that same request would not be accommodated.

  3. Elaine January 10, 2014 at 8:45 pm #

    AMEN to syropae’s comments and your post!

  4. Alex January 10, 2014 at 9:14 pm #

    Many universities, along with other public institutions of education at any level, seem to be overly quick to accommodate such requests because they are so afraid of being accused of discrimination, even when the accommodation itself ends up being discriminatory.

  5. Abigail Mattingly January 10, 2014 at 9:24 pm #

    Really interesting post – lovely to see something controversial rather than censored! Xx

  6. iRuniBreathe January 10, 2014 at 10:34 pm #

    I heard this story this morning as well -and was astounded – but hadn’t yet heard that this request had been granted. As I read your post I wondered if Mr X’s language of “firm religious belief” actually should have said “conditions of my probation.”

  7. Ali January 10, 2014 at 10:35 pm #

    I am sure you are already aware of this…Grayson stood against the request and against dean and human rights society who was in favour of the student. Later on the student X also retracted and joined the Group Session.
    The reason behind these kind of things are ignorance…No religion advocates such atrocity. How one interprets the religion twists and mashes it into Jumbalaya of nonsense and bullshit does not describe any religion.

    My final say is Grayson should have handled it himself instead of immediately forwarding this request of student X to dean and human rights.

  8. Ali January 10, 2014 at 10:35 pm #

    Also I am rebloggin thanks for wonderful article

  9. Ali January 10, 2014 at 10:36 pm #

    Reblogged this on Hi! Is for Humble Insights! and commented:
    My thoughts are on the comment section

  10. moosha23 January 10, 2014 at 10:45 pm #

    This is so true. It’s shocking that 1) he thinks that he can’t interact with women because of religious reasons, when I mostly take this to either be some sort of mockery towards religious people or as an attack on women, 2) that the dean was approving of his request, like ‘yeah I agree, even breathing the same air as a woman is hell-worthy’. Oh, I seriously commend the person who stuck his neck out for us, we need more sane people like that in the world. And Mr X? He either needs to talk to a counselor about his issues getting used to the 21st century with Mr Dean of Uni tagging along as a buddy, or buy himself some expert guides on 1. His own religion that somehow makes residing on the same earth as forbidden 2. Guides on how to live with women, cos honey, you can’t live without ’em. 😉

  11. Claire January 10, 2014 at 10:51 pm #

    “Because I can’t imagine that this case bodes well for the rights of women in higher learning.”

    Slow news this week? This is a tempest in a teapot if there ever was one. Administrators loath to deal with religious issues and granting exemptions are easier to do than fighting a battle. The reasons for an exemption are as arbitrary as religion itself, so there’s no basis for evaluation.
    It’s good to know that you’re a comprehensive expert in all 3 Abrahamic religions though. Perhaps you should teach a course or give guest lectures.

    The Dunning-Kruger effect is all over this post.

  12. Audrey Stringer January 10, 2014 at 11:35 pm #

    Special requests! what is that? No….I totally oppose this request. We have to remember that religion is the cause of all wars. If one applies to a college/university for course/s then their religion had better take second place. Women are not second class citizens! This prof better not be penalized. If we as Canadians go to a foreign country and apply to University we have to abide by their rules/regulations. If we mention we cant’ do ???? because of my religious beliefs- A JOKE they will say! STAND UP CANADA

  13. barkingiuana January 10, 2014 at 11:38 pm #

    Leaving your well-stated suspicions of honesty aside, I see a difference between the probably motivation for someone saying they could not meet with homosexuals and the likely (as I see it) motivation for someone who says he cannot meet with women.

    In the one case, it is disapproval of homosexuals. I started to write as people, but that’s not how such a person would see it. Nonetheless, that’s what it is.

    In the other case, it is a belief that one should not be tempted by sexual desire outside of sanctioned situations. It acknowledges the legitimate humanity of all concerned, and says that to facilitate what such a person sees as proper behavior, separation is wise and religiously mandated.

    Please note: I do not share that point of view in the slightest. I just think people should be judged on what they actually (or in this case, theoretically) believe and do. I recognize that even if I am right in his motivation, in many fields, accommodating such behavior would put women at a systematic disadvantage; that society used to organized along such lines; that it is a very good think that we have changed.

    • Sun-dipped African January 11, 2014 at 8:34 am #

      This is precisely what I thought. I don’t think the gentleman wanted to discriminate against women in the slightest. It was more about his own temptations, which I’m assuming his religion prohibits, that would made it difficult to interact with female students. Whereas refusing to work with homosexuals is a whole other matter and is in fact discriminatory. The gentleman was not belittling or taking away from the legitimacy of women in education, he merely wanted to avoid interacting with them if possible. And when he found this was not the case, as it should be in a secular university, he was happy to comply. I think this is fair and he doesn’t deserve to be berated for it.

      Surely if one of us enrolled in a religious university abroad, we would challenge any rules which interfered with our beliefs, or lack of, but if we found this was impossible as it contradicted the policy of the university, we too would comply. If one did a course at a university in Iran, for instance, where one would have to wear a scarf to attend classes, many people would be reluctant to comply without first seeking permission to go against the university’s rules. But if this was impossible, then for the sake of education, one must comply just as this particular gentleman did. This is not such an alien concept, it happens to many people who do not live in their country of birth. I really don’t understand why anyone is shocked about this. Cultural differences cause some friction but if people are reasonable about their stance in a country that is not their own, then the issue will naturally resolve itself.

      Or perhaps I am the only one who lives in a multicultural society and understands these things.

      • bhuwanchand January 13, 2014 at 11:21 am #

        Wow… you are right it was not shocking to read the because stupidity is not a crime as of now. But it is shocking to see an educated and intelligence woman like yourself living in a ‘multicultural society’ trying to defend it.

        And don’t you think sarcastic bit ‘the only one who lives in a multicultural society’ is rich especially when it is being used to defend a extreme conservative view by someone who enjoys the benefits of a multicultural society. The opportunities given to all living in a multicultural society should not be abused to propagate ultra conservative views – they are just one step away from fanaticism / extremism.

        No matter what the religion is of the student concerned, I think it is stupid (yes I have used the S word twice) to use it as an excuse to get out of an assessment activity.

    • oliviamariecasey January 12, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

      I agree with this. The analogy isn’t perfect, but the author’s point about the discrimination of women in academia is very true. If women are a sexual temptation, everyone should get over it in a secular setting – or not go to said secular setting. end of story.

      • bhuwanchand January 13, 2014 at 11:25 am #

        Right. If someone is worried about getting sexually tempted in a mixed gender group discussion then that person needs to check into a rehab. He is a danger to society and the women in his neighborhood who may unknowingly tempt him by accidentally talking to him.

      • Olivia Casey January 14, 2014 at 12:59 am #

        hah, good point!!!

  14. Kate January 11, 2014 at 6:06 am #

    My first cousins are Hasidic Jews, and my older cousin (male) has not been allowed to talk to me (female) starting at the time of his Bar Mitzvah. I’m not sure why this is a rule or if it’s even very strict, but it was explained to me that he cannot talk to me due to my age (17) and the way the religion works. Again, I don’t know the details of Hasidic law, but I do know that I barely know my first cousin at all because of this rule. I think it is perfectly possible that Mr X was in a similar situation, and we cannot write off the fact that his religion does not deem it admissible for him to meet and talk publicly with unmarried women of different faiths.

  15. Anne January 11, 2014 at 9:09 am #

    Being born and raised in a Muslim country (although not a Muslim myself) this is not surprising to me in the least. In fact, I instantly thought of Mr. X as a Muslim student since the mingling of male/female out of family/relatives is prohibited in the conservative circles. – At weddings and gatherings (for said conservatives) the guests are segregated (women in one place, men in another location) Males do not socialize with females outside their family circle. There is a term call “Non Mahram” which you can read about here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahram (if you scroll down to the “Rules” you will see how some are used/called upon in cases such as these. – That’s not to say of course that ALL behave in such a manner. For the most part men/women socialize quite normally. Although why a student who signed up at a co-ed/secular uni suddenly decided to uphold his religious views (IF he is a conservative Muslim) is very strange indeed.

  16. Gilraen January 11, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

    So agree with you. What amazes me though. Why would anybody want to have a BA in sociology and somehow not interact with women in it. Just reeks of a hoax

  17. mybodymystory January 11, 2014 at 7:15 pm #

    Actually, there’s this thing in uber orthodox Judaism called Shomer Negiah. Essentially, it means that you cannot touch, and sometimes, depending on your beliefs and community, even speak with, a member of the opposite gender unless they are immediate family. I personally think it’s atrocious and probably started as a tradition that got exacerbated as time went on, but it is a real thing. Here’s the wikipedia article, which is not entirely comprehensive, but does touch on the variety that can be present in the belief. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shomer_negia

  18. silkpurseproductions January 11, 2014 at 10:51 pm #

    You certainly have given me a lot to think about here. I changed my opinion more than once reading the article.
    It did bring to mind a working relationship I once had while working as a producer at a religious TV station. We had a “balanced” licence which meant we were required to air many different faith programs on the station. One of my favourite co-workers was an Orthodox Jew. I am a Christian. My being a Christian was not the issue. My being a woman was. I was not allowed to touch him in any way & he was not allowed to touch me. It is natural when you first meet someone to shake their hand. When we first met he explained why he could not shake mine. I immediately tweaked to the fact that hugging was out too. We grew to be close friends over the years and I loved this man dearly (in a non romantic type of way) and respected him beyond measure. I learned from him every day and I would like to think he learned from me. We worked very well together, often very intuitively, as a team. I still to this day wish I could have patted him on the back, high fived him or simply given him a hug.
    I may be being naive here but perhaps he was just trying to prevent being put into a situation that might have been difficult to control. Had I been offended by my co-workers rule I would have missed out on one of the most valuable relationships of my career.

  19. karolina kordouveiz January 12, 2014 at 1:40 am #

    this is very well written and when you substituted the word females for homosexuals or muslims- I couldn’t be more pissed about it!

  20. whobybarbituate January 12, 2014 at 9:29 pm #

    I’d be curious to know what the University’s reaction would have been had it read: “…my religious sect forbids me from meeting in public with males.”

    It’s easy to assume that they would have accommodated in kind, much like in this initial scenario. I just can’t help but have a lingering feeling that they wouldn’t have. That they would have written it off as: “Some feminist trying to make a point.”

    Perhaps that’s extremely jaded and pessimistic of me. In fact, it might be altogether ignorant, so please correct me if this is the case.

    I tend to find that a lot of scenarios where women present their discomfort with a male-dominant scenario, regardless of reasons, tend to get marginalized. Which I think is just stating the obvious. It just seems that over the last decade or so (and this may lend to the fact that I’m more aware of societal hierarchy) it’s far more psychologically aggressive.

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