Aruba Mahmud, 22, an honours visual arts student at London's University of Western Ontario, drew her friends clothed rather than remain in the classroom with her professor and fellow students who were sketching nude models.
Ms. Mahmud, a practising Muslim who wears a hijab, was allowed to draw her friends clothed as an alternative project to nude-model drawing -- she did stay once in the classroom with a nude model and found it very uncomfortable -- but only in early level courses.
At higher levels of instruction in painting and drawing, the university administration enunciated a clear policy: Draw nudes or don't take the course. Refuse to draw nudes once you're in the course and you fail.
Ms. Mahmud brought a letter from the university's Muslim chaplain stating that prolonged exposure to the nude body of a person who was not one's marital partner was contrary to Islamic teaching. She was willing to take a zero for the part of the course that involved nude drawing.
But the university stood firm.
"That's what really got me," Ms. Mahmud said.
"It seems so very all-or-nothing."
She recalled becoming emotional and starting to cry as she pleaded with her professor and chair of the department to be allowed to take the course without drawing nudes.
In any event, she graduates this spring without nude drawing in her résumé. "I don't think it's such an essential part of the work," she said.
A report on discrimination against Muslim students made public this week by the Canadian Federation of Students calls it "one of the most egregious stories" of a university refusing to accommodate diversity.
Kathleen Okruhlik, UWO's dean of arts and humanities, sees it differently, and takes issue with the accuracy of aspects of the student federation's report. In the past, she said, it has been conservative Christians asking for exemption from certain instruction. Now it is Muslims.
The issue touches on a heated controversy in Quebec under the heading of accommodement raisonnable, or reasonable accommodation, for religious minorities. Premier Jean Charest has created a public inquiry to examine how far the majority should go in a liberal pluralistic democracy to accommodate minorities.
Ms. Okruhlik said the university allows students to do substitute life drawing projects in introductory courses because it is recognized that, if they don't get through the introductory course, they will be barred from going further.
"But for advanced courses for drawing and painting, we decided we couldn't alter the curriculum for Muslim students or anybody else. It doesn't keep anybody out of visual arts. It will keep some people later on out of specific drawing and painting courses. In those courses, drawing from life models is absolutely critical. It's such an important part of the tradition to be able to represent the human body."
Ms. Okruhlik said she and her academic colleagues have dealt with Christian students who don't want to read Henry Miller (who wrote detailed accounts of sexual experiences) or literature that portrays homosexuality favourably.
"And we say to those students, 'No, we value diversity and plurality, but we also value academic freedom. So if you want to take this course, you have to read the assigned reading,' she said.
"It's hard for us to see how equal treatment means we can say to some students, 'No, I'm sorry you have to read that novel that portrays homosexuality in a favourable light -- but, no, you don't have to do that drawing.' "