It is not altogether clear how this policy change was decided. (Jake Olkkola, the Manager of Harvard Recreation, did not return my many requests for comment, and a monitor I spoke to at the QRAC was also unwilling to speak on record to me about it.) In an official announcement that was circulated over various House lists, the Athletic Department declared that the policy had been implemented for “equality reasons,” adding that “whether it is for overall comfort or religious purposes we wanted to offer an opportunity for women to work out without the presence of men.” But to cite a concern for equality while denying it to half the undergraduate population is preposterous.
Forthrightness has apparently been abandoned as an institutional priority. Administrators are unwilling to say what is obvious to most community members. The issue boils down to accommodating religious need (many of those who rallied for this change have even said as much). This policy has been put into place for women who practice orthodox religion—principally, Islam, though also some more conservative strains of Christianity and Judaism—and who are therefore unwilling to publicly wear the sort of athletic clothes that Western women might wear in a gym. The problem is not one of equality—women are welcome to use gym facilities while veiled—but one of serving minority religious interests.
The length to which Harvard or any institution ought to go to accommodate a range of religious and moral codes presents a complicated question. Although most Westerners reject the idea that a woman ought to veil when in the streets, Harvard fashions itself as a university of the world. Attracting the greatest talents requires accommodating a wide range of social preferences.
Yet accommodating a religious interest need not come at the expense of the majority. Closing a facility to undergraduates whose tuition fees have paid for it can be polarizing, so the matter requires a cautious and nuanced approach. There are already several good models for accommodating religion on campus. For Jewish students on campus, kosher dining is available at Hillel. Yet Hillel’s policy differs from the QRAC policy in that it does not exclude other undergraduates—any Christian, Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim may dine in Hillel any night of the week (and many frequently do).
While this method seems like the right one, it is not the national norm. That Harvard as an educational institution wants to make a contingent of undergraduates feel satisfied is reasonable. Indeed, just a few minutes on the elliptical machine in full sweatpants and a headscarf is an unpleasant prospect. We all benefit from diversity that is obtained through the right approach.
But the College’s approach in this debacle has been a fumble. Harvard administrators have been tight-lipped on this issue. Not to strive for transparency is to implicitly recognize the charged nature of the policy. The policy was implemented without consulting community members at large and without correcting the discrepancy in resources this creates between the genders. Administrators who wish to cling on to this notion that this is an equality issue should, at the very least, make the situation equal by holding men-only hours in another gym at the same time.
While this possibility seems unlikely, some of the women who wished for hours of their own say they would support such a plan. Ola Aljawhary ’09, an HIS board member who served as a liaison between her student group and the Women’s Center in coordinating these efforts, was very understanding of concerns about the discrepancy in resources. She told me that a push for men-only hours would be “perfectly justified,” emphasizing that she would not feel offended as a woman at all.
That Harvard’s misguided accommodationist policy may inadvertently divide as opposed to unite the diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds present in Cambridge is regrettable. More dangerously, it bolsters support for the idea that religious fundamentalism (particularly Islam) is incompatible with Western society. Harvard would do well not to make itself a breeding ground for this sort of feeling.
Lucy M. Caldwell ’09 is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.