Recently, two of my fellow students at McGill started a campaign to implement women-only hours at the University Fitness Center. The gym is open 102 hours per week. Reserving three of them for women didn’t seem like too much to ask. But the school’s unofficial social media outlets and later, CBC’s comment section, were soon flooded with backlash from the student body and the public.
Many opponents are arguing that women’s only gym hours would constitute unequal treatment of the genders.
The first concern ignores the fact that different groups are treated unequally all the time, and for a good reason. It is not so controversial to accept parking spots for people with disability, centres for queer people, affirmative action for racialized groups and financial aid for students in need. We don’t have parking spots for able-bodied people, centres for straight people, affirmative action for white people and financial aid for rich students. Why? Because we live in a society that is built by and around the needs of able-bodied, heterosexual, white, affluent people.
“We value … the equality of men and women in our society,” reads the online petition called “We Oppose Women-Only Hours at the McGill Fitness Centre.” Newsflash: this society is not equal. Women have been and continue to be marginalized through discriminatory patterns embedded and sustained through social relations and institutions in a male-dominated society.
In order to fix the power imbalance between the genders, we need to treat them equitably: to acknowledge gender inequality and treat people differently in order for everyone to receive equal opportunities. As is often the case, privilege is invisible to its owner, and thus we hear the cries of “reverse-sexism” and requests for men-only hours.
Other opponents have raised concerns around religious accommodation, but I won’t dwell on that, as it deserves an article of its own. However, I will point out that all attention in the discussion about women-only gym hours has been placed on only one of the students pushing for this initiative, who happens to be a Muslim woman. Much of the comments are tinted with xenophobic hatred of “suck it up or go home” variety. Without a doubt, this debate would have shaped up differently if the request had been coming from a white woman with a Western name.
So how does systemic gender oppression relate to fitness centre hours?
First, women of all ages lag behind in physical activity, and – as all types of oppression – this difference is more prominent among racialized women. Women’s lower rates of physical activity could be to due cultural restrictions, lack of information about fitness resources, receiving harassment and unwanted attention, stereotypes about female participation in sports, lack of female role models, getting teased about clothing and looks, poor body image, little choice or opportunity and safety concerns. But men, of course, can also experience these obstacles.
Which brings me to the second issue, which is that our notion of fitness is built around the bodies of physically-trained men, as apparent in army, firefighting or other aptitude tests. Fitness is considered to be a quintessential quality of a “masculine” man.
Meanwhile, women are encouraged to be slim, with just enough curves and not too much bulk (because that’s too un-feminine). Women’s fitness is sexualized; while men’s fitness magazines covers show muscular men with captions like “Get Ripped”, women’s fitness magazines picture slender women with captions like “Get Your Bikini Body, Fast.”
Women may feel intimidated, harassed or otherwise uncomfortable to exercise in a co-ed setting. This is not about an individual woman having low self-esteem; it is about a culture that actively perpetuates a feeling of inadequacy in women and entitlement in men – a culture that glorifies photoshopped body proportions, that ridicules “duck face” but encourages lip augmentations. A culture that calls a women “slut” if she’s sexually-active and “prude” if she is not. A culture that calls a woman “bossy” for the same qualities that would make a man “assertive.”
This same culture justifies sexual harassment and assault as an inevitable result of the existence of testosterone confronted by short skirts, and uses caveman analogiesto justify male domination. This, is systemic oppression, and has empirically been shown to prevent women from partaking in physical activity.
An equitable society, (hopefully) McGill University in this case, would acknowledge this oppression and would implement, equitable measures in order for everyone to use gym facilities equally.
I have many thoughts about women-only spaces. I think they are important and necessary. Until we live in a truly equal society, women-only spaces will remain integral in terms of allowing women the space to feel heard, safe, and valued. And while many might like to believe that we have achieved equality, the disparity between the number of men and women in positions of power, the disparity in wages, the ongoing issues with violence against women, attacks against reproductive rights and choice, and a culture built on a tradition of systemic patriarchy, demonstrate that, although gains have been made over the years (e.g., women can now vote and own property and earn degrees), there is still a long way to go.
What is more interesting to me, though, about women-only spaces, is the pushback and vitriolic response that occurs when women want spaces just for themselves, for any number of reasons, including safety and religious beliefs. Many of the spaces women occupy today were historically male-only spaces. We had to fight for entrance into these spaces, and still we often have to fight for a seat at the table. When female students want women-only time at the gym – even if it’s a mere three hours each week – it is not surprising to me that there is resistance.
Many spaces continue to be very male-centric, including the gym. I prefer to work out in the comfort of my own home because gyms can be unsafe places. I have experienced men ogling women, making comments about their bodies or even interrupting their workouts to provide their “expertise.” Even putting this issue of very real discomfort aside, it seems in no way unreasonable to request men to give up gym space for a few hours a week to accommodate religious beliefs.
I’m sadly not surprised at the backlash to this seemingly simple request. When men are asked to give up spaces, even for a short period of time, they tend to act as though their rights are being infringed upon. Men are not accustomed to giving up space; it is still largely a man’s world that we live in. The petition that has circulated in response to this request states: “All McGill students should be treated equally. Exclusive rights to the gym should not be granted to specific demographic groups. Women who refuse to use the gym when men are present make a choice that they alone are responsible for.”
But what this really means is that men don’t want to have to think about the ways in which the gym might feel unsafe or uncomfortable for women, sometimes. Patriarchy has taught men that they are entitled to spaces, and so when requests are made for accommodations for female students, it feels like a loss of rights and privileges. It is not an imposition on human rights to allot a few hours each week for women-only hours so that women can feel safe and/or have their religious beliefs respected while they work out.
Women-only spaces have been an important part of my life. While I chafed against gender inequality at an early age, I resisted the label “feminist” because it carried many negative connotations. This was long before media interviewers started asking female celebrities if they considered themselves feminist. There was almost no public debate about the meaning of the word or the philosophy behind it.
I was about 19 years old when the light went on and I realized why feminism was important. I spent many long afternoons in the Vassar College Women’s Center, sometimes napping, sometimes chatting, but often reading books from the free lending library on the history of the movement. During my 20s, I became the very thing I’d claimed not to be in my teens: a lesbian separatist. I spent most of my time in women-only and queer-only spaces. I found it vastly liberating. This was the 1990s, when the GLBT community was still very separate from mainstream society. I often felt alienated from the “straight” world and found immense comfort in being able to spend time with other queer women.
Things have changed a lot – in the world and in my personal life – since then. I am in a relationship with a man now, but I still seek out women-only spaces. As someone who used to center her life almost completely around women, I’m often bewildered at how quickly I revert to gender-normative cultural programming in the presence of men. Being aware of it and struggling against it can be exhausting.
Women-only spaces provide a respite from that struggle. I especially treasure spending time with other bisexual women who deal with the same issues of identity and visibility. Bisexuals and transgender people have faced oppression from both the “straight” world and the gay and lesbian communities. We both challenge the idea of a strictly gender-binary world. I’m glad of the advances in basic civil rights for transfolk and am happy that more and more women-only spaces are welcoming to transwomen. In addition to more secular groups, I’ve been a member of a women’s spirituality group for more than 10 years. It’s inspiring and empowering to explore the feminine faces of the divine from across the world.
Public domain photo of woman at gym via Wikimedia Commons