York University thinks religious beliefs should transcend gender equality — and that’s wrong

There has been a fury of controversy at York University in Toronto in the past couple of weeks. A male student requested exemption from having to do group work in class with females, citing religious reasons. While the professor flatly refused to accommodate his request, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts insisted on the university’s official position that the student’s religion be respected. As you can imagine, this has sparked a national debate about what matters more — religious freedom or gender equality?

Photo: sonjabe.com
Photo: sonjabe.com

This kind of discussion makes my blood boil because I firmly believe that gender equality should transcend religious accommodation whenever a choice must be made between the two. I am horrified by the fact that, in my own country, where women are supposedly given the same opportunities and treatment as men (after centuries of fighting for it), a male student is allowed to shun the entire female gender while continuing his liberal arts education in a Canadian university.

Just because a belief is religious doesn’t mean that it’s right, or even appropriate to uphold in a progressive, liberal country such as Canada. What if someone’s ‘religion’ suddenly made it impossible for them to mix and mingle with African-Americans, Jewish, First Nations, Armenians, Australian Aborigines, Roma, or Tutsi people, or other ethnic groups that have been cruelly targeted? I can’t even begin to imagine how inappropriate that would be, and how strongly people would react to such a suggestion – and yet, when it’s about women, York University is willing to perpetuate the notion that women are, in some way, noxious and offensive and inferior, and deserve to be shunned by males.

And what is a liberal arts education worth if not to pursue truth? To quote Craig Walker, head of the Department of Drama at Queen’s University, in a letter he wrote to the Globe and Mail:

“This [decision] soon will leave us effectively revering bigotry… Our remedy will lie in our freedom to speak out and challenge what we encounter. That argument may not please, but it is the only moral ground upon which we can make a stand when someone does not wish to study a certain text or to work alongside a person of a certain group because of some apprehended indignity.

“Yes, this, too, is an ideology, but it is preferable because it insists that we diligently question all ideologies and preconceptions. Like it or not, we must hold tight to this paradox, because it is the closest thing to a backbone the modern university will ever have.”

Shame on York University for making a decision that’s a betrayal of all women and an embarrassment to Canada.

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7 thoughts on “York University thinks religious beliefs should transcend gender equality — and that’s wrong

  1. There was a little more to the story that made it make a little more sense. The class was an online class and was not advertised as requiring any face to face work. Since some face to face work was actually required, they decided to accommodate the request on that basis. They wouldn’t have done it if were not an online course. Don’t get me wrong, I still think religious accommodation is ridiculous, but that’s part of the whole story. As to the religion, I think it’s more likely the guy was some form of orthodox jew rather than a muslim. They have stricter rules for association between males and females. It’s also possible he wasn’t even an immigrant.

    1. I was going to write the exact same thing, only less eloquently. Very happy to instead write a hearty, “I concur!”

    2. You’re right about it being an online class. I’d forgotten that point, though it still makes me wonder why the student would be at York then. Why not do an all-online degree through a school such as Athabasca U if coming into contact with women is such a sin?!

  2. What if it had been a female student who refused to work alongside a male student, citing religion as her reason?

    Hard to even imagine, right? Even harder to imagine her refusal being entertained by the powers that be. Sadly, we’ve still got a long way to go, baby.

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