In response to a request by female Muslim students, Harvard University has created women-only workout hours at one of its campus gyms. The decision has angered some students at the Ivy League university.
Since Jan. 28, the Quadrangle Recreational Athletic Center has been open only to women from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays.
The change was prompted by a request from the Harvard College Women's Center, which was approached by six female Muslim students, said Robert Mitchell, communications director of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
"It was done for religious purposes, but it's not closed to other women who may want to participate," he said.
Ola Aljawhary, a student and a member of the Harvard Islamic Society, said the women-only gym is needed.
"These hours are necessary because there is a segment of the Harvard female population that is not found in gyms, not because they don't want to work out, but because for them working out in a co-ed gym is uncomfortable, awkward or problematic in some way," she told Boston University's Daily Free Press.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in Washington D.C., said modesty may prevent some Muslim women from exercising in a co-ed environment.
"If the women are dressed in a manner that makes it more comfortable to exercise, they may not feel it’s appropriate for them to be viewed by men in that particular attire," he said.
But the change has angered students like Nicholas Wells, a junior who called the change a "lose-lose" situation in an opinion article he wrote for the Harvard Crimson newspaper.
"It is an unreasonable policy that is unjust to men and useless to women," he wrote.
"Rather than a genuine attempt to provide comfortable workout hours for women and religious observers who might be uncomfortable working out around men, this policy beats around the bush by offering the least utilized and the most inconvenient hours and gym space," he said. "No one benefits from women’s only hours."
The Quadrangle Recreational Athletic Center is one of three large recreational facilities on the Cambridge, Mass., campus, though most of the 12 residential houses also have workout facilities, Mitchell said. A large Harvard athletic center is also available for use on the Boston side of the St. Charles River.
Harvard has made many accommodations for students' religious needs, Mitchell said. Those include prayer areas for Hindu and Muslim students as well as the rescheduling of exams to accommodate religious holidays.
"This is just yet another of what we thought was a reasonable request for some special times because of religion, not because of gender," Mitchell said.
The women-only hours are being tested on a trial basis and will be evaluated at the end of the semester, he said.
Reports of the Harvard decision have sparked discussion in student publications across the country, including the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where an athletics department spokesman said such a measure would be "hard to pull off" in the campus' primary gym.