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Proposal for women-only gym hours halted by McGill administration

Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens released a statement on Friday expressing that McGill will no longer be considering the implementation of women-only gym hours at the McGill Fitness Centre.

“McGill is a community where every form of diversity (cultural, linguistic, gender, religion, etc.) is celebrated and encouraged,” Dyens’ statement reads. “We do not believe in the segregation of our services [….] We encourage and will continue to encourage all our patrons to engage respectfully with one another, just as we expect all members of our community to treat each other equitably and respectfully in whatever context. Accordingly, we have determined that separate hours for women will not be established at the fitness centre.”

The proposal was spearheaded by two McGill Law students, Soumia Allalou and Raymond Grafton. Allalou expressed disappointment with Dyens’ statement.

“I’m shocked that the McGill administration [and] the deputy provost would decide to shut down negotiations when some other actors in the university were already willing to accommodate [the proposal],” Allalou said. “We had come up to […] a possible solution that could have been implemented and that I’m sure would be accepted by most of the campus.”

According to Allalou, a compromise was being discussed with Jill Barker, manager of marketing and communications for McGill Athletics and Recreation.

“[Barker’s] idea was [to have] a separate varsity room,” Allalou said. “She was saying that we could open it tentatively for a few hours a week […] and do a trial run.”

Allalou added that the additional varsity workout space would not affect the hours or access of the fitness centre.

Claire Stewart-Kanigan, Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President University Affairs, expressed that she believed that the McGill administration only approached the proposal on religious terms, leaving out the other benefits that having the hours might confer.

“In my reading of the situation, the university is anxious to distance themselves from […] what they’re reading as a question of religious accommodation to Muslim women, which is a hot topic right now,” she said. 

Stewart-Kanigan also highlighted examples of similar gym policies in place at other Canadian universities. 

“From the start, the students pushing for this have been clear that this is not exclusively an issue of religious accommodation,” she said. “[The University of Toronto and] other schools have adopted women-only hours. Their adoption was not separate to religion, acknowledging many reasons [for] why there are demands for women-only hours.” 

According to Stewart-Kanigan, the administration had not consulted with the student body before deciding to terminate the proposal.

“The statement states that [the] administration met with students and myself on Thursday to gain a better perspective […] before making their decision,” she said. “This is false [….] The decision to halt negotiations on the subject of women-only hours towards finding a compromise solution was already made on Monday.”

Allalou agreed with Stewart-Kanigan on the lack of consultation. 

“On Tuesday, [Stewart-Kanigan] messaged me and she informed me that the deputy provost was going to shut down negotiations,” Allalou explained. “This is even before he ever spoke with me.”

Attention from both the media and individuals on campus has increased since the discussion was introduced by Allalou and Grafton, with many divided on the issue.

U2 Arts student Frances Lash, who opposes women-only hours, expressed disappointment at the administration’s actions on the issue.  

“I do think that the administration’s decision to not continue negotiations was correct,” Lash said. “Although it is laudable that the women who proposed it strongly advocated for their cause, the gym is not covered fully by [student] tuition: It is an optional service which [individuals] pay extra for [….] Beginning to make exemptions in a service that is optional impedes others from benefiting from the service they have paid to receive.”

However, Lash added that she did not agree with how McGill administration had phrased their statement.

 “The words the university used were inflammatory and condescending, and more tact should’ve been used by the administration on such a hot topic of debate,” Lash said. “Gender discrimination and diversity are important discussions to be had and to be taken seriously—and it seemed like the university was too [flippant] in its response. Words like ‘segregation’ and ‘modesty’ are problematic because they have a long history of misuse.”

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