Harvard University last month instituted women-only hours at one of their campus gyms. The hours are designed to accommodate female Muslim students at the university who find it easier to work out among women. The students asked the university for the women-only hours so they could dress in ways more appropriate to exercise (i.e. clothing that is not allowed in mixed-gender situations because of modesty requirements).
Needless to say, the policy has been controversial. Men have been crying about equal access (note that this is not the only gym on campus and this one is actually not very centrally located and there are only 6 hours a week when this policy is in effect) but it seems there is a decent amount of anti-Muslim sentiment behind some of the criticisms--by both men and women.
So we have issues of gender and religion and even the role of an educational institution.
The latter seems the easiest to address. A spokesperson for Harvard said is its responsibility of the school to provide access to a healthy lifestyle for all its students. And I agree. It is not as if schools do not make accommodations for religion on a regular basis. For example, when I worked at Cornell University there was a significant amount of planning that went into developing and maintaining a kosher dining station in a new dining facility. I have heard about schools assigning rooms and roommates to accommodate the practices of some students. Students of all religions are not penalized (theoretically at least, I have heard stories about professors not honoring the rules) for missing classes on religious holidays.
But the tougher issues are the ones about gender and religion. And they are ones that are not going away any time soon. I see more and more stories about Muslim women competing in sports around the world. (I do wonder though about the dress claims being made by the Harvard women. Muslim women are competing internationally in front of mixed-gender crowds and sports apparel companies are meeting their dress requirements--a la Nike's hijab worn by a Muslim runner a few years ago.)
But it's no secret that I dislike women-only spaces in gyms. This is compounded by the fact that I am no fan of religion either--any of them. The easy answer would be an unsympathetic one (and very much based on a white Western woman point of view): you choose to practice a religion that is oppressive to women. You are participating in your own oppression and women-only hours in a gym only perpetuates that. But, of course, there are many ways to practice Islam; Muslim women are not without agency. Also no one has been able to convince me that Islam is any more oppressive than most of the other religions out there. Plus, we all participate in our own oppression. Patriarchy isn't reserved for organized religion.
Frankly I have more respect for Muslim women who advocate for women-only spaces so they can maintain their religious practices and gain the advantages of exercise than all these women flocking to Curves where they most certainly are participating in their own oppression by buying into all the rhetoric about beauty standards that is perpetuated at such establishments.
Our attention gets called to stories such as these because it seems like these practices are so outside the norm and/or that sport is somehow religion-free. We rarely question the ubiquitous practice of prayer before games. And that's because it's Christian-based prayer. There are not a whole lot of complaints about invoking the Christian god in national anthem before almost every intercollegiate and professional sporting event. Even BYU's policy of not playing games on Sundays gets very little resistance in the world of intercollegiate athletics. Maybe we should be taking a closer look what and whose practices we are picking on and why.