Religious or cultural accommodation should not privilege the rights of one gender over another. Yet, that is what happened when a male student at York University requested an exemption from a group project with female classmates for religious reasons. The professor refused the student after consulting religious scholars and evaluating the merit of such a request.

He managed to appease the student, who completed the assignment, but received flack from administrative authorities at the university. The incident sparked controversy by shedding light on gender relations and equality in the classroom.

Communication practices are all-gendered. It would be naïve to assume any less. In the society we live in, interactions between males and females exist in most aspects of social life. This should not be a conversation of religion or the politics of post-secondary education requirements.

What we have trouble understanding is how working with a female student on a school-related project could be seen as anything more than if it were with a male.

What message is York University sending to the Canadian people? They argue that Professor J. Paul Grayson, the sociology professor who refused the unnamed student, should have accepted the request on the basis of religious accommodation. The Ontario Human Rights Code provides the legal and administrative standard for all provincial universities in these instances.

However, some argue this case represents religious freedoms valued over gender rights.

Canada recently granted Malala Yousafzai honourary citizenship for her role in advocating education rights for women in Afghanistan. The bitter truth is there are women around the world who face the everyday reality of an unjustified denial of education or work based on gender alone.

Any desire for gender priviledge—masked by a skewed perception of culture and religion – should not influence legal or administrative decision-making in a non-secular institution. Furthermore, York University certainly shouldn’t support unwarranted segregation based on gender.

The student could not have been clearer if he wanted. Aided by an invisible sense of priviledge he has stated, “I cannot work under these conditions.”


Had the professor agreed with his request, he would merely solidify the male student’s position of power, reducing the female to nothing more than a condition.

The size of classrooms, the ever-growing cost of books, and a heavy course load balanced with a job to pay for a costly education—these are all stressors college students face. However, an individual’s presence is not a condition in any male or female’s pursuit of an education.

The Algonquin campus in Jazan, Saudi Arabia—boasting an all-male institution—garnered strong sentiments against it, with the issue being that an educational institution should provide a place for everyone. Since gender identity and relations are socially constructed, universities should educate against segregation rather than supporting it. Equality should not be compromised in today’s modern era.

Sociology Professor J. Paul Grayson, quoted in the National Post, said it best.

“It represents a great leap backwards.”

Written by Safia Hashi