Thursday, March 27, 2008

Hijabs at Harvard Gym

The Washington Post
It's a measure of America's multicultural journey over the past
half-century that we've gone from "God and Man at Yale" to Allah and
Woman at Harvard.
In a contretemps scarcely imaginable in William F. Buckley's day,
Harvard has closed one of its gyms to men for six hours a week so that
Muslim women can exercise comfortably. "Sharia at Harvard," warned
blogger Andrew Sullivan. A Harvard Crimson columnist blasted
"Harvard's misguided accommodationist policy."
Meanwhile, a separate controversy has flared over broadcasting the
Muslim call to prayer from the steps of Harvard's main library during
Islamic Awareness Week. Three graduate students, writing in the
Crimson, argued that the prayer sowed "seeds of division and
disrespect" by declaring that "there is no lord except God" and that
"Mohammad is the Messenger of God." Harvard, they wrote, "should not
grant license to any religious group, minority or otherwise, to use a
loudspeaker to declare false the profoundly important and personal
beliefs of others."
Buckley, who died last month, famously proclaimed that "I would rather
be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory
than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University." Were
he still with us, he would no doubt be saying "I told you so," except
more polysyllabically. Leave it to the Ivy League to abandon its
cherished secularism -- in defense of Islam.
My reaction is more along the lines of: "Get a grip." It's reasonable
to set aside a few off-peak hours at one of Harvard's many gyms. It's
not offensive to have the call to prayer echoing across Harvard Yard,
any more than it is to ring church bells or erect a giant menorah
I share the apprehensions stirred up by the more radical followers of
Islam, with their drive to restore the caliphate and subjugate women.
But I come to this issue as a member of another minority religion,
Judaism, whose adherents often seek flexibility from the majority
culture in order to practice their faith. As with Islam, my religion's
more observant believers endorse practices -- segregating the sexes at
prayer, excluding women from engaging in certain rituals -- that I
find disturbing, bordering on offensive. I have relatives who would
shrink from shaking my hand. Still, I would defend to the death their
right not to touch me.
Certainly, accommodation has its limits. Ten years ago, Orthodox
Jewish students at Yale sued -- unsuccessfully -- after the university
refused their requests to live off campus because, they claimed,
living in co-ed dorms would violate their religious principles. Muslim
students at Australian universities are demanding course schedules
that fit into their prayer times and separate, female-only dining
areas. In Britain, female Muslim medical students have objected to
being required to roll up their sleeves to scrub and to exposing their
forearms in the operating room. Fine with me if they need a place to
scrub in private, but your right to exercise your religion ends where
my safety begins.
A regime of reasonable accommodation inevitably entails difficult --
Talmudic, even -- line-drawing. That's not true of the claim that the
call to prayer offends because it proclaims publicly what other
religions are polite enough to keep private: the exclusive primacy of
their faith. Surely even Harvard students aren't so delicate that they
can't cope with hearing speech with which they disagree -- in a
language they don't understand.
All of this matters not because it's Harvard but because it
underscores that America is not immune from the tensions over Islamic
rights that have gripped Western Europe. In the Washington area
earlier this year, a Muslim runner was disqualified from a track meet
after officials decreed that her body-covering unitard violated the
There have been similar disputes over women seeking to wear
headscarves on the college basketball court or while walking the
police beat. More problematically, Muslim cabdrivers at the
Minneapolis airport sought unsuccessfully last year to be excused from
picking up passengers carrying alcohol.
The wisdom of the Framers ensures that some of the excesses of Europe
-- in both directions -- won't be replicated here. The French ban on
students wearing headscarves would not only be unimaginable in the
United States, it would also violate the Constitution's free-exercise
clause. The archbishop of Canterbury recently suggested that the
British legal system should incorporate aspects of sharia law; that,
too, would be unimaginable here and would violate the establishment
But the Constitution goes only so far to help American society
navigate the familiar issues raised by this unfamiliar religion.
Muslim women who enroll at Harvard and turn up in hijabs at its gyms
reflect a strand of Islam that society ought to encourage, the better
to compete with its more odious cousins.
Harvard authorities managed to get this one right -- Buckley's
preference for the Boston phone book notwithstanding.

Source: By Ruth Marcus, The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 26, 2008; Page A19

1 comment:

Riaz Haq said...

A 35-year-old Pakistani-American woman Kulsum Abdullah, who holds a PhD in computer engineering, has waged a personal crusade with both the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Weighlifting to push reform of the uniform law.

It was the USOC that urged the IWF to make the change during a meeting in Malaysia earlier this week.
Born in the U.S. to Pakistani parents, Abdullah competes in the 48kg (about 106 pounds) and 53kg (about 117 pounds) weight class.

She began weightlifting as an exercise routine a few years ago and said: 'It was just something for fun. It gave me something to achieve as a goal.'

She then teamed up with a trainer and set her sights on competing, training five to six days a week and entering competitions last year in Flowery Branch, Newnan, Gainesville, Savannah and South Carolina.

Abdullah, who moved to Atlanta from Florida in 1999, said she covered her body during local competitions and met no resistance from local weightlifting officials.

A spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations added: 'We welcome this important decision in support of greater inclusion in athletic competition and urge the representatives of other international bodies to take similar steps.

'We thank the United States Olympic Committee for helping to empower Muslim women athletes and for taking a stand in support of the American tradition of religious diversity.'

Abdullah is among other female athletes who are Muslim and have been blocked from national and international competition because of their insistance on modest dress.

Iran's women's soccer team was recently disqualified during an Olympic qualifying competition against Jordan after athletes wore a full-body outfit with a head scarf.

As a result, they will not be allowed to compete in London.

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