Light streams through floor-to-ceiling windows in Harvard’s Quadrangle Recreational Athletic Center on a Monday afternoon, hitting a battalion of elliptical machines. A less noticeable detail of this gym, however, is its most controversial: the absence of Y chromosomes.
A few months ago, Harvard became one of a handful of colleges to set aside specific gym hours for women only, a policy that has sparked indignation and debate at Harvard and on other campuses across the nation.
In response to requests from six female Muslim students wishing to exercise without the constraint of burqas and hijabs, on Jan. 28 Harvard designated six hours a week in one of its gyms as women-only.
“This trial program is in keeping with a long tradition at Harvard of working collaboratively with our students to address issues as they arise,” Judith Kidd, Harvard’s associate dean of student life, wrote in an official statement. “The program will be reviewed at the end of the semester.”
Many Harvard students have criticized the decision, labeling it anti-feminist, an example of political correctness gone wrong and a new form of segregation. Others defend the policy as one that promotes women’s health.
Harvard junior Nick Wells said that when he walks by the gym during women-only hours, he often sees only two or three women using the facility. He said the times allotted for women – early Tuesday and Thursday mornings and Monday afternoons – are inconvenient for anyone living in the religious houses far away, but are peak hours for residents of the Quad like himself.
“If they want to help (female Muslim students) out, at least try to do it in a genuine way that’s practical for them or practical for us,” he said. “I think you need to be economical about it.”
In a Feb. 20 column in the Harvard Crimson, Wells criticized the policy’s lack of transparency and the inconvenience it causes male residents of the Quad who regularly use the gym. Dozens of students and alums agreed with him in online responses to the article.
“My religion dictates that I work out in an empty building alone for eight hours a day. How does Harvard plan to accommodate me?” quipped one student in an online comment.
Atena Asiaii ’08, a member of Brown’s Muslim Student Association, said she feels Harvard’s policy has been cast as a religious issue, when it is in fact a women’s issue.
“I actually think the issue itself has been mischaracterized in the media,” she said.
The issue of women-only gym hours has never come up at Brown, said Director of Athletics Michael Goldberger. Asiaii, a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, long sleeves and long pants, routinely uses the Brown gym without feeling encumbered by her clothing. She said she does not mind co-ed gym time, though she believes many women feel more comfortable lifting weights without men present, simply because they’re “embarrassed that they can only lift a 20-pound or 10-pound weight when there are guys right next to them lifting 100 pounds.”
“I would feel more comfortable in a gym with only women,” she said, “but it’s not because of a religious conviction, and I think many women share this sentiment regardless of religious background and belief.”
Asiaii disagreed with sentiments that women-only gym hours reinforce the stereotype of women as weaker and less athletic than men, adding that the hype surrounding the issue does not stem from a concern that the policy is anti-feminist.
“Unfortunately I feel like the big hype that’s been drawn out of this isn’t really because people are concerned about feminism,” she said. “I think it comes out of a more xenophobic attitude toward Muslims.”
Kalamazoo College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan, has had a similar policy, though less publicized and less controversial, for three years. “Women in the Weight Room” arose for purely secular reasons: a female student began the program to encourage women to try out the weight machines without feeling intimidated by men nearby.
The college’s only gym does not have adjustable weight machines with pins, so it is “very difficult and time consuming to shift the machine from our 230-pound stereotypical big guy athlete to someone like me,” explained Sarah Westfall, Kalamazoo’s vice president for student development and dean of students, who said she regularly attends the women-only hours.
Hannah Masuga, a junior at Kalamazoo who runs the program, is in charge of asking men to leave at the beginning of the women-only hours.
“It’s almost always awkward,” she said with a laugh. But she added that she’s “never had actual men protesting” the program. While most men apologize and leave, she said, some try to bargain for more time or leave in a huff.
“I think that if men wanted men-only hours,” Westfall said, “we would institute it. It’s more of a convenience factor than a philosophical or equity-based argument.”