Photo: flickr/The City of Toronto

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When York University professor Paul Grayson was instructed to accommodate a student’s request to be excused from group work with female students, it sparked a debate about the future of gender equality and religious accommodation at York University and other universities across Canada.

The event inspired questions: Is there a hierarchy for human rights at York University? What does it mean when the historical fight for gender equality in post-secondary institutions is countered by the administration accommodating a student’s request for segregation? Most importantly, why are student groups remaining silent on this issue?

The student, who remains anonymous, asked to be excused from the group work portion of an online sociology course because meeting and working with female students was in conflict with his religious beliefs. When Professor Grayson denied this request, the student accepted the decision. However, shortly after, the Liberal Arts and Professional Studies Faculty Dean Martin Singer ordered Professor Grayson to accommodate the student’s request on the grounds of religious accommodation, complying with the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Conversation on the topic has turned towards concerns of gender equality and the slippery slope that the university administration is dancing on in choosing to accommodate this student’s request. “My main concern was that for religious beliefs,” Professor Grayson told the CBC, “we also can justify not interacting with Jews, blacks, gays, you name it. And if this were allowed to go through, then all these other absurd demands could be made.”

This slippery slope has become a vehicle for xenophobic and anti-islamphobic discourse, under the guise of critically examining organized religion, despite the fact that Professor Grayson himself spoke to Islamic and Jewish scholars who demonstrated that the student’s request was not in line with either religion.

Unfortunately for the rest of York students, few campus groups are speaking out on the matter or creating any space for dialogue. In fact, to date only one campus group has released a statement addressing the controversy, though it has made it to a number of major news outlets.

“This decision casts serious doubt on York’s commitment to upholding gender equality within our university community, despite the administration’s stated promise of inclusivity and plurality,” reads the statement from the York University Graduate Student’s Association (GSA).

Why have other organizations representing students chosen not to address this issue? I suspect it is because there is an unspoken concern that criticizing the student in question and his request would be in line with currently pervasive Islamophobic rhetoric. If leftist campus organizers don’t want to reinforce the idea that Islam is a religion that oppresses women, they should not shy away from this debate. In doing so, they are letting islamophobes lead the conversation. The GSA also addresses this problem in their statement by saying “…we also strongly condemn those responses to the administration’s decision that are rooted in xenophobic and racist attitudes towards religious minorities.”

I would argue that this statement could even be considered gratuitous, considering the religion of the student remains unknown. Islam only became part of the conversation because Professor Grayson mentioned in an interview with The Toronto Star that the student’s name suggested he was either Jewish or Muslim.

Furthermore, if campus organizers are walking on eggshells to avoid their comments overlapping with racist, xenophpbic or islamophobic language then it only shows that they too are making a connection between sexism masquerading as religious practice and the Islamic faith. How can members of the York activist community be relied upon to resist the complex machine of islamophobic rhetoric if they cannot even address a simple case of sexism?

As a female, Muslim member of the York alumni, I encourage — implore even — other campus organizations that exist to represent student interests to address the decision made by the York administration to allow patriarchal values to manifest on the York University campus under the guise of religious accommodation.

Sexism is sexism, no matter what hat it wears. By staying silent we are not resisting islamophobia, but allowing people to quietly maintain assumptions that are informed by xenophobic values. This is extremely unproductive when you consider that: 1. It is still not known what this student’s religion is and 2. Professor Grayson consulted an Islamic scholar who swiftly quashed the idea that not being able to work with female students was part of Islam.

This is not a matter of religion, this is a matter of a culturally specific manifestation of globally occurring patriarchal values. Islam is not sexist, refusing to work with female peers is sexist. For members of the York community, this is a matter of denying a request by one student that would infringe upon the rights of others. 

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Haseena Manek is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter here.

Photo: flickr/The City of Toronto