by Alexander Dietz | Harvard shows that segregation is not always a bad thing.
Harvard’s decision to adopt temporary women-only gym hours at the request of six female Muslim students has sparked a controversy over the limits of religious accommodation on college campuses as well as in society at large. On April 9, the Tufts Daily editorialized in favor of the policy, calling it “a reasonable concession to a religious group.” Others were not so approving. The Boston Herald called it an “exercise in discrimination,” and blogger Andrew Sullivan warned of “Sharia at Harvard.”
Proponents and opponents of the policy seem to view this as an argument about Islam. Bleeding hearts leap at the chance to defend what they see as an oppressed minority and to promote the all-important concept of diversity, even though it undermines the arguments of the more radical feminists on their side of the political spectrum. Some conservatives, meanwhile, see themselves in yet another skirmish in the clash of civilizations, comparing it to the real struggles in Europe to maintain liberal values in the face of opposition from radical Muslims.
Both of these attitudes miss the point: while religion was a significant factor in how the change came about, it is irrelevant to the issue at hand. If the university had adopted a policy that exclusively benefited students of a particular religion at the expense of other students, and had done so as an explicit concession to that religion, its actions would be difficult to defend without sacrificing principles of fairness and equality. However, that is not what happened here.
At a non-religious school (and one cannot get much less religious than Harvard), as in politics, proposed policies must have secular justifications and must be evaluated based not on who advocates them, but on their merits. In this case, the policy aimed to provide a service for female students of all religions and some who, for reasons of culture and modesty, as well as theology, desired the opportunity to exercise in comfortable clothing without exposing themselves to their male classmates.
While the initiative was led by members of the Harvard Islamic Society, it was also supported by the Harvard Women’s Center, and advocates say many other students welcome the opportunity. Moreover, the policy affects just one of the university’s five gymnasiums for six out of its 70 weekly hours of operation, representing a moderate step to satisfy the students to whom it appeals.
The charge that the policy’s gender segregation is unacceptable also lacks perspective. Co-ed facilities have been the exception, not the rule. Harvard was dominated by male students for most of its 371-year history, only beginning to allow the women at the former Radcliffe College to take classes during the Second World War.
To be fair, Tufts admitted female students just 40 years after its founding in 1852. In addition, the popularity of the Naked Quad Run shows that most of its student body has few reservations about admiring the student body, so Jumbos may not be able to relate to a more modest lifestyle. Still, it was not so long ago that the idea of a co-ed gymnasium would have been considered lewd and tasteless. If Massachusetts’s early English settlers were alive today, their Puritan consciences would likely be shocked by Cambridge’s prurient mores. The standards of society may shift, but those with old-fashioned values should not be penalized for living in the wrong century.
Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee and author of the blog Instapundit, noted last month that some of his readers were wondering “if Harvard will close its gyms to openly gay men at certain hours, so that straight men who are made uncomfortable by gays can work out without being uncomfortable.” He raised a legitimate point. Similarly, it seems unlikely that the university will ban lesbian students from the gym, or allow gay male students in, during the women-only hours, even though the logic of the policy would seem to support such moves. Nevertheless, the fact that there is some level of hypocrisy in social and political considerations that prevent some desired accommodations should not stand in the way of the reasonable accommodations that can be made.
There is not much of a libertarian argument against the policy, either. As a staffer at the libertarian magazine Reason wrote on the publication’s blog, “As a private institution, Harvard should be allowed to make whatever accommodations it chooses. And of course, if a student, alum or faculty member doesn’t like it, they can complain or leave.” There is no inalienable right to work out, so Harvard is free to experiment in order to try to find what rules will do the most good for the most students.
Social conservatives, meanwhile, should support Harvard’s choice enthusiastically. If Christian students had endorsed the policy, it would undoubtedly be more popular on the right. Everything should not be seen through the lens of the conflict between fundamentalist Islam and modernity. One must never give in to intolerant demands, such as those of the violent protesters in the furor over the Danish Muhammad cartoons. However, one must also not dismiss a sensible request just because it is connected to the faith of one’s enemy.
Mr. Dietz is a sophomore majoring in Political Science.