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 honestly, 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."
"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.
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