Every now and then I come across a story that makes me so angry I need to take my feelings out on an unsuspecting dishtowel before I can safely interact again with people. Today’s rage-inducing article revolves around how York University is prioritizing a student’s religious convictions over gender equality.
You can read the whole story over on TheStar.com but the short version is this: A male student enrolled in an online sociology class was excused from the class’ only in-person assignment – a group-work-based, student-led focus group – as doing that assignment would have involved interacting face-to-face with women, something that’s against his religious beliefs. No, we don’t know the student’s religion but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is what happened next.
The class’ professor wasn’t comfortable with the request so he passed it along to some higher ups that shocked him by agreeing with it. Okay, they didn’t come out and say that religion is higher up on the rights hierarchy than gender. Instead they argued that since distance-ed students who take the course don’t have to do the in-person assignment, the student in question can also skip it, but still, it looks bad and it sends then wrong message: Can your religion be twisted to be anti-women? Then you don’t have to work with them (if that’s what you choose).
And no, one York official on a power trip didn’t make that decision. According to the article, multiple people looked into the situation, including, the school’s human rights centre and legal consel. The end conclusion: Since the Human Rights Ontario Code demands religious accommodation, the student doesn’t have to interact with women if doing so goes against his religious beliefs.
Now, yes, I know that’s the law but to see it actually put in action in this way just makes my jaw drop. How can religious beliefs, something that’s first of all, made-up, and second, often twisted to serve an agenda, trump the rights of women, who are real human beings, to be treated as equals? Because that’s exactly what’s happening here. And how does this decision then not violate the female students’ equality rights?
I agree that in this story, someone’s going to feel that his or her human rights are being violated no matter which decision is made. So why not support the right that is actually based around a human, instead of the one that protects an easily manipulated collection of thoughts?
I know that I’m supposed to say that all human rights, from gender to religious to sexual orientation, can peacefully co-exist alongside each other. But as this situation demonstrates, that’s not always going to be true. While this whole story makes me quite angry, I can see a silver lining in the form of a dialog on how a mature, progressive society handles the collision of two (or more) human rights.
I have no problems with people practicing whatever religious beliefs they want in the private sphere (so long as those beliefs don’t harm people, animals or the planet). But once people cross into the public sphere (including the quasi-sphere that is a publicly funded university), things change. In that space, there should be no question that the rights of actual, physical human beings trump something that is…let’s say more conceptual.
To not practice this approach is sending… well, it’s sending a few messages. One is that a person’s religious beliefs are more valued, and to be more respected, than someone’s gender. Obviously this is a line of thinking that can quickly go to a bad place. I mean, if a university student can’t work with women on a class project, how can he say, work with them in an office? And what if we replace gender with a race or a sexual orientation or some kind of disability. Then what happens?
Another message coming out of this story is that women are still very much “the lesser.” Already this week we’ve had an article about the hate women experience on the internet and a news story from Texas about a brain-dead woman who, against her personal wishes and those of her family, is being kept on life-support in order to keep her fetus alive (because that’s the law). So this week we’ve learned that in addition to being valued less than someone’s interpretation of an old book, women are also less valued than immature/psychotic men/boys and unborn babies who might not even be viable.
Yes, it’s 2014. I’m going to go attack a dishtowel now.