The Harvard Gym Controversy is Not About Religion

Almost every article I have come across on the subject of the “Harvard gym controversy,” over the exclusion of men from the gym for a small period of time each week, has focused on the problem of religion and religious accommodation. Why should we accommodate them? Where will it stop? How many accommodations are we going to need? Why do Muslim women feel uncomfortable in gyms?

These are not the right questions. The question should be, why do some women feel uncomfortable working out, swimming, jogging, under the male gaze? Why do some women feel uncomfortable walking on the street at night? Why do some women feel uncomfortable taking the metro or the bus after dark? Why would most women prefer to have sex-segregated bathrooms, showers, and dorms? Why do women feel nervous when, waiting for a bus late at night, a man shows up? You could argue that they should “suck it up,” and “deal with it.” They do, in fact. Every day, American girls and women are raped. Worldwide, in fact, women are daily punished for being female. Whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, pagan, or atheist—they are women.

The answer is not based in religion. The problem is patriarchy and the male gaze. This gaze is often threatening to women’s physical and psychological security, no matter what they do and no matter what they wear, no matter what age they are, and no matter where they are. Women can be raped.

And women can then be accused of dressing provocatively. Women’s clothing is not a simple matter. The law itself concerns itself with women’s clothing.

Svend, my husband, can run out to the door in his shorts and in what some people refer to tellingly as a “wife-beater.” I, on the other hand, must be fully dressed, complete with appropriate underwear. There are reasons why this is so, and they are only partially based in religion.

The rules of the gym, some say, are different: people don’t bat an eye if a pretty girl shows up in short-shorts and a sports bra. Please, I respond: are you telling me that an attractive young woman wouldn’t attract a great deal of male attention in a two-piece at the pool? Are you trying to argue that it doesn’t matter what a woman wears, in the pool or the gym? That she should still feel safe and comfortable? She should, in fact, also be free of body-consciousness that is at the heart of truly exhilarating physical exercise?

Girls and women in our culture—in most cultures—grow up with an intense sense of the male gaze. We are conscious of the male gaze that evaluates women, the male gaze that judges women, the male gaze that desires women, the male gaze that lusts after women, and the male gaze that is threatening to women. Entering the gym does not make that consciousness go away. But women are supposed to pretend that the physical and psychological realities of our culture simply evaporate at the door to the gym.

When I was at Indiana University, Muslim women used to request women’s hours at the pool. It was a most delightful swimming party. Some of my non-Muslim women friends envied us the freedom of swimming with women alone. One told me how she disliked baring unnecessary lengths of flesh for the pool—whether for modesty or for self-consciousness or because she hated having to shave. The swimsuit, for instance, is after all an inherently eroticized, sexualized garment. There’s a reason why Sports Illustrated has a swimsuit issue. It’s also why men love to leaf through Victoria’s Secret catalogues. Let’s not pretend that undergraduate men do not check out women in the gym. Or in the pool. Or on the beach. That women should be “tough” enough to jog away at the treadmill in a state of free bounce while completely unaware of the male gaze. And why, indeed,  should they be so very tough? Has society—any society—created an environment of complete gender-blind safety for them that they should give up those hang-ups once and for all?

People have wondered why Muslim men haven’t made the case for separate gym hours. Yes, it would be better for pious Muslim men to not look at women, but yes, they are less concerned about being seen. And is that because they are less pious than Muslim women? (Perhaps, I might argue). But the reason is because we live in a patriarchal world, where men are generally not at risk of physical danger from women. It is because women are objectified, raped, assaulted, bought and sold worldwide. Most women, one writer argued, are too shy to request women’s hours at the gym: Muslim women have the gall to demand it, and on the basis of religion. And why, I ask, should most women be “shy” to request women’s hours at the gym? Women are not too shy to march in the street in Take Back the Night demonstrations. But the night has not been regained. When I leave the gym, the night is still as dark and menacing as before.