The weight room can be a scary place. Bellowing, muscle-bound Neanderthals toss dumbbells around like baby rattles. The walls are covered with mirrors. Everyone’s in a hurry. Woe upon the gym-rookie audacious enough to rest on a machine between sets or forget to wipe one down after using it. Every bony or pudgy newcomer has felt pangs of inadequacy when trying out a new exercise or working in a crowded gym, especially if that crowd includes members of the opposite sex.
Many college gyms have tried to ease these qualms by introducing times for men and women to exercise separately. There has been some resistance, but for the most part these efforts have been accepted by students, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required). That is, until recently, when the word “Muslim” was injected into a discussion of separate gym times at Harvard. A group of Muslim women had requested some time to work out without male students present. Harvard complied, establishing six hours per week of all-female time at one of the lesser-used university gyms.
The media pounced on the story, making sure audiences were aware that schedule-shift was initiated by Muslim women, even though other women had also expressed a desire to exercise without men present. The discussion quickly turned away from gender and body-image issues to focus on the more controversial religious angle. But what most news services missed or ignored (and the Chronicle caught) is that other schools have enacted similar schedules for religious purposes. Those stories just weren’t meaty enough for coverage, however, since they involved groups of Jewish and Christian women.