A Toronto Transformation


Women’s Rights vs Religion at York University

“All through life there were distinctions - toilets for men, toilets for women; clothes for men, clothes for women - then, at the end, the graves are identical.”  ― Leila Aboulela, Minaret

Recently local media has been abuzz with York University’s decision to allow a student to be exempted from group work in a course due to his claim that his religion does not permit him to interact with women.

As would be evident to anyone witnessing me growling at my radio listening to CBC’s coverage of the whole debacle, I have some opinions on the matter.

First of all, a religion that expects you to ask someone whether they identify as a man or woman (because, guess what guys, gender is a construct! So you can’t just do a simple friendly genital check!) before you know if it’s OK to share an educational experience with them? Sign me up! (not).

And why is it that when you take out the word “women” and replace it with another religion or a race or a sexual orientation, suddenly (in Canada at least) most of us find the idea of granting an accommodation on such grounds completely repellant. Why is it ok when the group being discriminated against is women?

Presumably no one forced this man to attend a secular institution or to take a course where some in-person interaction with classmates is required. And while the school has taken the stance that their decision was made based on the fact that most of the course was done online, claiming that gender equality doesn’t enter into the issue, it should be noted that the student did not ask to be exempted from the group work because he expected all work to be done online and lived too far or the campus was otherwise difficult for him to access in person; he asked to be exempted specifically to avoid interacting with women.

This particular instance might not directly affect the experience of the women taking the course. They might not feel their rights have been infringed upon because they might have to miss out on interacting with a man who subscribes to a belief that men and women should not freely interact with one another as equals. In fact, odds are they might be glad not to have to interact with such a man.


The decision of the School to retroactively state that this student should not have been expected to interact with the women in his class, and that accommodations should have been made so that he could avoid women sets a dangerous precedent and it sends the message that when the rights of gender equality and religion clash at York University, religion will win.

It lends legitimacy to gender-based discrimination.

York should have said that they have a strict zero-tolerence policy towards any kind of gender-based discrimination and that refusing to work with women for any reason, religious or otherwise, falls squarely under that category.

This is a big, diverse country with a lot of religions and it is vital that we have rules and rights that are considered above and beyond any religion so that we can all live as harmoniously as possible regardless of our individual spiritual belief systems.

What do you guys think? Where do you draw the line when religion and gender equality clash?

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