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?
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.