A York University professor, J. Paul Grayson, refused to let a student skip a group project for the sole reason women were present in it and that the student didn’t want to deal with women. The School administration, however, overturned Mr. Grayson’s decision and recommended that he make concessions for the student.
When I read this in the morning paper, I turned to my husband, Andre Nemat, and, half jokingly, asked him if we should begin to look into immigration from Canada to a country where women’s rights were more respected. This was déjà vu; in 1990, Andre and I escaped Iran, the country of our birth, because I had recently been a political prisoner in that country and had been tortured for standing up for the rights of women and students. After the Islamic revolution of 1979, wearing the hijab became mandatory for women, even if not Muslim – which I wasn’t. The new regime began a brutal, deadly cultural revolution that shut down universities to root out “evil” Western practices and culture. Wearing make-up became illegal, and so did dancing, wearing perfume, and holding the hand of someone from the opposite sex in public. Thousands of young people, including me, protested the new laws and ended up in prison.
In the early 1980s, around the same time thousands of students were being tortured in Evin prison in Tehran, and after the government reopened the universities, Andre and those of his classmates who had survived the mass arrests of dissidents went back to class at the University of Tehran. He was an electrical engineering student. One of his classes was a lab and, as it happened, there was one woman in that class. The professor discreetly came up to Andre and basically begged him to partner up with the female student. The professor rationalized that because Andre was a Christian he wouldn’t get in trouble for working closely with a woman; if one of Andre’s Muslim classmates volunteered, the zealot administration of the school might see him as “anti-revolutionary”, and he could be expelled from school or worse as a result. Andre accepted to work with the female student, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
We don’t know what the religion of the aforementioned York student is, but he seems to be either Orthodox Jew or Muslim – but it doesn’t matter at all. Whatever his religion, in a secular school he has to put his religious/cultural beliefs aside. What if a student had said he could not work with those who have a different skin colour, with gays, or with other minorities or majorities, visible or not so visible? Then what? We would accommodate that, too? This student needs to be taught to respect the rights of others and that his liberties end where the liberties of others begin. Women are not second-class citizens, and they are not unclean.
Marina Nemat is the author of Prisoner of Tehran and After Tehran.