CAMBRIDGE, MA -- Harvard University’s Quadrangle Recreational Athletic Center has banned men for six hours a week to accommodate Muslim women who, for religious and cultural reasons, cannot exercise comfortably in their presence. A discussion about this policy was aired on NBC’s “The Today Show” this morning.
No men are allowed to exercise in the gym between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Mondays, and between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Even the staff during those times is all women.
With the support of the Harvard College Women’s Center, a group of six Muslim women asked the university for the special hours, spokesman Robert Mitchell says. The trial policy went into effect Feb. 4.
“We get special requests from religious groups all the time, and we try to honor them whenever possible,” says Mitchell, who notes that Harvard has designated spaces for Muslim and Hindu students to pray.
The special hours allow the Muslim women, who adhere to traditional dress codes by covering their hair and most of their skin while in public, to dress more appropriately for exercising, says Susan Marine, director of the women’s center.
The policy change has created a stir on campus. Student Lucy Caldwell wrote a column in the Harvard Crimson newspaper criticizing the policy.
“I think that it’s incorrect in a college setting to institute a policy in which half of the campus gets wronged or denied a resource that’s supposed to be for everyone,” Caldwell says.
Another student, Nick Wells, also criticized the policy in an opinion column for the Crimson.
“It’s not that I am opposed to the idea of helping people in religious groups or women in general, but I just think Harvard is not being fair to people like me who live (near the gym),” Wells says.
Kent Blumenthal, the executive director of the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association, says he does not know of another institution with a similar policy.
“It seems in some ways contrary to the purpose of campus recreational programs, which is all about access,” Blumenthal says.
The policy will be reviewed at the end of the semester.
The Quadrangle Recreational Athletic Center is open 70 hours a week. The gym is mainly used for intramurals and is the least used of the three large recreational facilities on campus, though most of the 12 residential houses also have workout facilities, Mitchell says. A large Harvard athletic center also is available for use on the Boston side of the St. Charles River.
A similar issue was raised two years ago at Fitness USA in Lincoln Park, MI. There, Muslim women who had signed up with the for-profit club because of its offering of gender-specific days were alarmed by the fact that men, who were allowed to work out in a special annex on women-only days, could still see the women working out. The issue was resolved when the club agreed to frost the glass walls of the Cardio Zone room and install large poster panels to block visibility from the coed area to the exercise floor.