Cambridge, Ma — Men are banned for six hours a week from the Harvard University's Quadrangle Recreational Athletic Center. The ban was to accommodate Muslim women who, for religious and cultural reasons, cannot exercise comfortably in men's presence.
No men can exercise in the gym between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Mondays, and between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Even the staff during those times is all women.
With the support of the Harvard College Women's Center, a group of six Muslim women asked the university for the special hours, spokesman Robert Mitchell says. The trial policy went into effect Feb. 4. It will be reviewed at the end of the semester.
“We get special requests from religious groups all the time, and we try to honor them whenever possible,” says Mitchell, who notes that Harvard has designated spaces for Muslim and Hindu students to pray.
The special hours allow the Muslim women, whose traditional dress codes require them to cover their hair and most of their skin while in public, to dress more appropriately while exercising, says Susan Marine, director of the women's center.
Kent Blumenthal, the executive director of the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association, says he does not know of another institution with a similar policy.
“It seems in some ways contrary to the purpose of campus recreational programs, which is all about access,” Blumenthal says.
The Quadrangle Recreational Athletic Center is open 70 hours a week. The gym is mainly used for intramurals and is the least used of the three large recreational facilities on campus, says Mitchell, who adds that most of the 12 residential houses also have workout facilities. A large Harvard athletic center also is available for use on the Boston side of the St. Charles River.
A similar issue occurred two years ago at Fitness USA in Lincoln Park, MI. There, Muslim women who had signed up with the for-profit club because of its offering of gender-specific days complained that men, who were allowed to work out in a special annex on women-only days, could still see the women working out. The issue was resolved when the club agreed to frost the glass walls of the Cardio Zone room and install large poster panels to block visibility from the coed area to the exercise floor.