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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6 Responses to Women’s Rights vs Religion at York University

  • mandy says:

    Oh yeah, this makes me ragey.

    It reminds me of a friend who used to work at a firm that had a big client in Kuwait. He was coming in from Kuwait to talk to them about this million dollar project he was doing, and when he found out he would have to interact with female colleagues, he said he could not unless there was a male moderator he could speak with, and that she would not be allowed to make eye contact with him and would have to wear long sleeves in his presence. She’s a super nice person so she complied, but I’d probably end up risking my job because I would not let someone come into my place of work and demand who I speak to, who I look at, and how I dress.

    My view is that the reach of anyone’s religious beliefs ends when the rights of others begins.

    • metamorphocity says:

      Good! Haha. You should have seen me stalking around my apartment, trying to get ready for work but getting distracted shouting “NOPE!” at the radio.

      Your friend’s situation sounds horrible. I’d be risking my job right along with you. I guess at least the student wasn’t trying to come to class and insist no women look him in the eye. Still, gender inequality is a most slippery slope!

  • I agree with Mandy’s comment, and I would have been pretty enraged if someone told me that I would have to cover up and not look at a client simply because I am a woman. When it comes to religion, how you adhere it is 100% up to you, and you should not be asking other people to change their behavior to make it acceptable to your religion. But maybe we should just start making up religions with arbitrary rules- say, all attractive men must doff their shirts in my presence, because in my (fake) religion, a man’s chiseled chest is sacred and should never be covered.


  • LaReesa says:

    Hi! I found your blog from The Nectar Collective. I’m a small town newspaper reporter, so your description caught my eye 🙂 I’ve been to many a tractor festival and small town meeting in my time.

    I haven’t heard of this debacle — I usually get my Canadian news from “As It Happens” and haven’t listened in awhile. I think it’s outrageous, partly because I am not religious, so doing anything “because my religion requires it” is a crock to me and an arbitrary set of rules. As Rachel said, anyone can make up a religion (take a peek at Mormonism, which was literally made up 200 years ago by a guy who claimed he found a bunch of buried golden plates with writing on them. Those writings are now the Book of Mormon and guess what — those plates were never seen by anyone but the religion’s founder … surprise, surprise). Anyways, people can believe what they want but how many accommodations can a society make? Especially when it infringes on the rights of others? Canada and the U.S. are secular societies, and I think people should be expected to conform at least somewhat to the expectations of the society they live in (or the university they attend).

    If I made up my own religion (er, “found ancient texts to base my religion on”) that said I couldn’t interact with black people, would ANYONE accommodate me? Uh, obviously not. But why would they accommodate this guy? Because his religion is old and well-established? Because they are discriminating against a gender, not a race? Maddening.

    • metamorphocity says:

      I’m so glad you found me and left such a lovely, thoughtful comment! Thank you! I totally agree. It’s definitely important to try to accommodate the beliefs that people hold dear, but not when they start to tangle with basic human rights like gender equality.

      And your last point totally sums up how ridiculous the whole request was!

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