Does the belief of one man trump the rights of hundreds of women?

Based on a shocking and deeply disturbing decision made this week by York University officials, I fear the answer may be yes.

With the start of a New Year, I was planning to post about the joys of the holiday season, sharing my experience brining and cooking my first turkey, but there is an issue that has come up this week that has struck a large blow to Canadian women, and I am so deeply offended and concerned, that I feel it is more important that I share this with you first and foremost.

As many of you may be aware, a male student at York University requested that he be excused from working with women in his class because it is, apparently, against his religion. The religion of said student remains unknown, but there is no religion I am aware of that makes such a statement. There are however fundamentalists from many religions across the globe who would make such a claim, and the fact that it would even be entertained in a country as openly diverse as Canada is not only shocking, but deeply offensive to the basic rights women have been fighting on behalf of for centuries.

Surely, such a request, which, if complied with, would suggest that York University cares more about the religious claims of one student than it does about the rights of the hundreds of female students, would be preposterous, right?

Well, officials at York University didn’t agree. Some supporters of this decision have even said that if the student had made a similar claim about not wanting to work with students of a particular race because of his religious beliefs this would have been much more shocking.

Excuse me? Did I hear that correctly? Racial rights are more important and a higher priority than women’s rights? It isn’t shocking to officials of a top University in the Western world in 2014 that a male student may not want to work with women?! Are you kidding me?!

The student’s instructor, Professor Paul Grayson denied the student’s request and the student himself actually agreed to work with the women in his class, but school officials, apparently not satisfied with the fact that the Professor had managed to resolve the issue without the benefit of their egotistical interference, felt the need to step in and overturn his decision.

Grayson responded with the following statement:

“Women for 50 years have been making gains in universities. This takes us back to the dark ages as far as I’m concerned. It’s completely unacceptable.”

In a Globe and Mail article, writer Sheema Khan said, “The York student’s request is based on cultural preference rather than any solid religious foundation. Nonetheless, the prevailing societal norm should not be set aside to accommodate a view that repudiates the efforts of countless women and men to ensure equal opportunity. Gender equality is non-negotiable.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

The idea that working with women is somehow against any God is exactly the kind of negative attitude towards women that we need to fight to challenge. It is the root of the same attitude that causes girls in some countries to have acid thrown in their faces when walking to school. It is the same attitude that caused the Taliban to shoot then 11-12 year old Malala Yousafzai in the face because she refused to stop going to school. It is the same because it is a disregard for the rights of women. It is the same because it is a slap in the face acknowledgement that there is something about working with or being educated alongside women that is negative and wrong.

Here is the promise I am making. I will not attend a course at York University so long as this decision is upheld and those same officials remain in their positions.

If I were a current student there, I would walk out and refuse to attend classes, encouraging my fellow students to do the same, male and female.

I know that education is a powerful right and that not every woman may be in the position to abandon their education for the sake of women’s rights and I respect that, so all I ask is that you do something. Tweet about it, share a link on Facebook, talk about it with your friends. Just don’t let it be forgotten.

If we do nothing, this issue will fade as life goes on and the idea that one man’s claim for religious rights could be more important than the rights of hundreds of women will become part of our cultural identity and our collective consciousness.  

The fact that this attitude could be supported in Canada is dangerous. If we can’t even be bothered to stand up against this kind of ignorance here, what hope will there ever be for the rest of the world?

Some well articulated articles on this topic can be found below:

What York University forgot: Gender Equality is not negotiable by Sheema Khan

York University cowardly, compliant and blind to common sense by Rosie DiManno