Religious Accommodation vs. Women’s Equality Rights at a Canadian University
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For the last couple of weeks (early January 2014) the Toronto press has been abuzz with a story emanating from York University. In brief, it is the following.
A male student was taking an on-line course from Prof. Paul Grayson in York’s Department of Sociology. Although the course was on-line, Prof. Grayson required his students to visit the campus once to take part in a group activity with other students. The male student asked to be excused from this requirement as his religion prohibited his interaction with unrelated women. We don’t know the student’s religion, and Grayson refused to speculate, but he said he did consult with both Jewish and Muslim religious leaders. He then declined the student’s request.
|York University Keele Campus- Wiki Commons|
One question here is whether the harm would be real or merely symbolic. Would the female students be harmed, perhaps, by being deprived of the male student’s brilliant insights? If there was no such harm, did the fact that he did not wish to interact with women somehow constitute a psychological or symbolic harm, suggesting that they were unworthy of his attention, or unclean, or somehow sexual temptresses.
Professor Grayson argued that the York administrators would have been unlikely to assent to the student’s request if he has said his religion prohibited him from interacting with black or gay people. I think he’s right about blacks: the administrators could not permit racial discrimination, even if it had been hidden (Grayson did not have to tell other students about the request). About gay people, I am not so sure. Religious prejudices against homosexuals are rooted in some of the same prejudices held against women. Women in their bodily functions, especially menstruation, are seen by some religions as dirty and shameful. In this view, gays’ sexual activities also render them dirty and shameful.
Nevertheless, I can’t imagine any York administrators instructing Grayson to grant a student’s request not to interact with gays. So why grant it with regard to women? I think the answer is the long history of separation of women and men in some religions, especially some variants of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. This separation is bound up with traditional ideas of modesty and the separation of the sexes for their own good. So it still doesn’t seem as wrong to say that your religion doesn’t permit you to interact with strange women, as to say your religion doesn’t permit you to interact with blacks or gays.
In preparation for writing this blog I reread an article I published (with Laura Reidel) in 2007, “Human Security and Multiculturalism in Canada” (published in Ineke Boerefijn and Jenny Goldschmidt, eds, Human Rights in the Polder, Oxford, Intersentia). In that article I discussed a number of debates going on in Canada at the time; about prayer space for Muslims in Quebec universities, gay marriage, the use of shari’a-based arbitration in Ontario, and censorship of cartoons appearing to denigrate Islam. I concluded the following:
“[T]he right to practice a minority religion should [not] be permitted to undermine the human rights of citizens of liberal democracies. The state should accede to demands for accommodation by religious minorities only when such accommodation is not likely to undermine the human rights of any citizens, whether inside or outside the religious minority…[A]ll citizens are at risk if policies to accommodate the demands of any religious minority undermine the liberal democratic human rights regime.” (p. 35)
On this basis I supported prayer space for Muslim (and all other religious) students (even though space is always in short supply at Canadian universities). But I opposed shari’a based arbitration (as well as arbitration under Jewish law) on the grounds that it can undermine women’s and children’s rights. I supported gay marriage. I opposed banning of cartoons, on the grounds that freedom of speech is more important than protecting believers from offense.
Using the principle that accommodation must not undermine other people’s human rights, I think Professor Grayson did the right thing. Even if there was no immediate material damage to the women in his class, the principle that a man does not have to interact with women in an educational or work setting is denigrating to them. It implies that they are less than fully human, not worthy of the same respect as men.
Of course the York University case gives ammunition to proponents of the Quebec Charter of Values, about which I wrote on September 11, 2013: you can find that blog here http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2013_09_01_archive.html . The proposed Charter would ban public servants from wearing religious apparel at work. I maintain my view on the Quebec Charter. I see no reason to ban religious apparel from the public sector, although I would prohibit proselytization by public servants at their workplace, whether in Quebec or elsewhere. Banning religious apparel sends an extremely negative message to members of minority religious groups, while permitting it does not undermine anyone else’s human rights.