Women Only Gyms: What’s all the fuss about?

There’s nothing like the thought of a gym or swimming pool running women-only sessions (at the request of Muslim women) to get some men all worked up. Take the recent ‘controversy’ surrounding one of Harvard University’s gymnasiums. Andrew Sullivan rushes to denounce it as “shariah at Harvard’; Jihadwatch says they have submitted to Islam; and on and on it goes.

It’s hard to see what all the fuss is about.

Firstly, isn’t Harvard University a private university? The gymnasium is therefore its property. If one really believes in private property (and many people don’t) then one must also believe in the right of an owner to exercise absolute control over that property based on whatever criteria he or she may decide. If Harvard University, or the owner of any other gym or swimming pool, decides to ‘discriminate’ against men by disallowing them access during certain times of the day, then they should have every right to do so; and, likewise, if they wanted to ‘discriminate’ against people whose first names start the letter ‘P’, they should have every right to do that too. All property owners — whether home owners or the owners of businesses — should have absolute sovereignty over their property and how it is used. This is on the proviso, of course, that they must accept the social and economic consequences of their decision (and in the case of some of the examples that might be extreme embarrassment, public humiliation and/or boycotting).

Secondly, the decision to provide women-only sessions at a gymnasium could be viewed as a commercial decision. The gymnasium has obviously identified a market: people who have an interest in using the gymnasium but can’t because they don’t feel comfortable doing so when men are around. By creating women-only sessions a few hours a week, the gymnasium is attempting to win new customers and expand its market share. Some Muslims may benefit, but ultimately the gym is hoping that it will benefit too. In Harvard’s case, they advised the Muslim students that they would only continue to provide women only sessions if attendance was adequate. Hence, the email sent around by one of the Muslim women at Harvard that reads, in part (emphasis added):

These women’s-only hours will be in place indefinitely insha’Allah, but the coordinators will check to how usage has been to see if they can continue. I think the first check will be around Spring Break insha’Allah (3/22/08). If you can make some of these times and are interested in working out, by all means please go to the gym then! (Quad gym: 66 Garden Street)

It may also be beneficial to the university — from a marketing perspective — to be able to demonstrate it’s willingness to accommodate the needs of Muslim students. Australian universities, for example, have in recent years benefited from a rise in international student numbers from the Middle East and being able to represent their university as a “Muslim-friendly place” may be useful from a marketing and sales perspective.

So if people are just so outraged at the thought of a gymnasium setting aside a time for women, then they can opt to vote with their feet and not renew their memberships or stop attending the facility. Maybe, if there is enough of them, someone will be smart enough to open a gym that caters to that market as well.