Women-only workouts

Harvard has banned men from one of its gyms for several hours a week so that Muslim women can exercise in private.

By Catherine Price
Published March 5, 2008 7:20PM (EST)

At Harvard, controversy is stirring in a rather unlikely place: the gym. According to the AP, Harvard has banned men from one of its gyms for a few hours a week to accommodate Muslim women who say "it offends their sense of modesty to exercise in front of the opposite sex."

The trial policy came into effect after six Muslim women, with the support of the Harvard College Women's Center, requested the special hours. Since Feb. 4, the gym in question -- which supposedly is one of the least used on campus -- has been closed to men on Mondays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. (during those times, the staff itself is all women as well). This is because most workout clothing would be considered "immodest" if people of the other sex were around. Also, as gym-goers will attest, some of the equipment requires movements that would seem obscene even if you weren't in spandex (inner thigh machine, I'm talking to you).

It's not the first time controversy has brewed over Muslim women's desire to work out alone. But when the gym is on a school campus, it's a little more complicated than when the gym is commercial. Does the university, as spokesman Robert Mitchell put it, have "a moral and ethical responsibility to make sure [its] students can stay healthy," and thus need to accommodate the women's request? Or is it, as Kent Blumenthal, executive director of the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association, said, "in some ways contrary to the purpose of campus recreational programs, which are all about access"? Or is there a middle ground, as suggested by student Nick Wells, who wrote an editorial piece in the Harvard Crimson suggesting that the gym set aside one room -- as opposed to the whole facility -- for women. "It's not that I am opposed to the idea of helping people in religious groups or women in general, but I think Harvard is not being fair to people like me who live (near the gym)," he's quoted as saying.

As things stand now, the trial policy will be reviewed at the end of the semester -- after which point, if it's upheld, it'll be interesting to see whether it inspires similar requests at other universities.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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