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At York University: Is the Issue Religious Accommodation or Gender Harassment?

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It was recently reported that last September, Professor J. Paul Grayson of York University received a request from a male student to be excused from a scheduled group project. According to the National Post, the student gave the following reason:

"One of the main reasons that I have chosen internet courses to complete my BA is due to my firm religious beliefs, and part of that is the intermingling between men and women,... 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."

The request for accommodation of the male student was refused, after the professor consulted both Muslim and Jewish scholars, who stated it had no foundation in either religion, and after the professor's department passed a resolution rejecting any religious accommodation that contributed to the "marginalizations of other students, faculty or teaching assistants."

According to the National Post, the student accepted the professor's decision and attended the group session.

This means the male student overcame his own personal barrier and chose integration.

But accommodation still remains an issue. And now according to a petition made in support of Grayson, the professor may face disciplinary action for standing up for gender equity.

Who is to blame for that?

Well, it was the Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, Martin Singer, who apparently continued to demand accommodation for the male student (who no longer appeared to be seeking it) by way of letter to the professor, dated October 18, 2013.

And recently, his actions were supported by York University Provost and Vice-President Academic, Rhonda Lenton, who said, "she understands the controversy but believes the university made the right decision."

The right decision? Really?

By demanding the male student have no interaction with female students didn't the university administration disregard the right of female students to full and equal status at York University?

In doing so, didn't the university administration fail in its duty to make efforts to protect the female students from gender discrimination?

And though I am no expert, I wonder why this isn't a case of gender harassment, which is defined by the Ontario Human Rights Code, as:

"any behaviour that polices and reinforces traditional heterosexual gender norms ... It is often used to get people to follow traditional sex stereotypes (dominant males, subservient females)."

Doesn't the demand for accommodation in this case, perhaps run contrary to the York University Sexual Harassment Policy, which states:

"York University strives to provide an environment wherein all students, faculty and staff are able to learn, study, teach and work, free from sexual harassment, including harassment on the basis of gender identification and sexual orientation."

Perhaps it is not the university administration who should be determining how this matter ought to be concluded at all. Maybe its own record should be reviewed, both inside and outside of the halls of the institution, for its own possible failure to make efforts to protect the equal status of female students?

As stated by others, there is no foundation for gender segregation in religion, including Islam. In fact, there are Muslim and Jewish feminists, in North America, Europe and elsewhere, working tirelessly to end it - at their places of worship.

To promote it at an institution of higher learning in a secular society is a slap in the face to them, as well as to the women who fought to attend the same schools as men, to the women whose success and livelihoods today are a by-product of their hard earned degrees and most significantly, to the women who have yet to graduate and build their futures.

Let us hope our universities ensure the degrees of the class of 2014 and beyond are as valuable as the rest.

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