Harvard's Segregated Gym

In the late 1980s, when I was in college, I served as captain of the Princeton women's ice hockey team. My teammates and I, our Harvard opponents, and everyone else in the league were beneficiaries of a significant piece of legislation called Title IX -- the Education Amendment of 1972 that prohibited discrimination in any activity on the basis of sex.

A few years before I went to college, there were no women's ice hockey teams at the college level in America. Nine years after I graduated, women I'd skated with competed in the first Olympic games to include our sport. The United States won the gold medal.

Title IX gave the nation's female college athletes access to a playing field that had previously been ruled by men. Progress inspires further progress and Title IX is an example of this golden rule. The amendment came only three years after Princeton admitted its first female undergraduates. Five years earlier, down south a few states, black men and women were routinely denied the right to vote. In America, the principal of egalitarianism -- that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities -- has been on a slow but decidedly forward march.

Until recently at Harvard University.

On February 4, 2008, in an act of segregation disguised as "collaboration," Harvard University set the clock back fifty years by agreeing to ban men from a popular university gym for six hours each week to appease Muslim women. Harvard University spokesman Robert Mitchell stated to me that this was done at the behest of a group of women "whose religion does not allow them to remove their burqas and/or hijab in the presence of men."

The Harvard College Women's Center, which represents on its website that it supports "women that challenge, motivate, and inspire," quickly endorsed the policy of segregation. Its director, Susan Marine, told CNN, "It's just not possible for [the women] to be in a mixed environment."

America has a history of having segregation laws on the books. From the end of the Civil War until 1965, America's "Jim Crow" laws mandated that one group of people -- American blacks -- had separate facilities for activities including sleeping, eating, worshiping, and exercising apart from another group of people, American whites. But state-sponsored school segregation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1954, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 annulled all remaining acts of segregation. Title IX, spearheaded by Patsy Mink, the Rosa Parks of the legislation, put an end to male/female inequity at the college level -- certainly where federal funding was concerned.

What is Harvard University thinking? Why would it endorse segregation at a time when its most visible alumnus, Barack Obama, has vowed to move America beyond the lingering legacy of America's "Jim Crow" laws?

"A group of Muslim women made a request, we thought it was reasonable," Harvard athletics spokesman Matt Lavoie told me in an interview. "It's a religious issue, that's all."

The religious "issue" which Harvard is embracing is a draconian system of jurisprudence called Sharia law. Created in the 9th century and wholly unchanged, Sharia law is the law of the Taliban. Sharia law governs Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Iran.

Just like America's former "Jim Crow" laws, Sharia law mandates that one group of people -- Muslim women -- have separate facilities for activities including sleeping, eating, worshiping, and exercising apart from another group of people, the world's population of men.

Sharia law allows Muslim fathers to force their daughters into prearranged weddings, sometimes with a family member, when those daughters are still children, sometimes as young as nine. Sharia law allows women to be stoned to death for adultery. And Sharia law is why men and women can't work out in the same environment in a Harvard University gym.

None of which answers the question: why would a bastion of higher learning tolerate such an odious system of jurisprudence, let alone embrace it?

Could it possibly have anything to do with the $20 million gift Harvard recently accepted from Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Addulaziz Alsaud? (That would be the same wealthy prince whose $10 million pledge to the Twin Towers Fund was rejected by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani). When I posed this question to one Harvard official after the next, I was met with guffaws. No one in Harvard University's president's office wanted to discuss the issue with me despite multiple requests.

My question -- does Harvard's "Jim Crow" gym have anything to do with the Saudi Prince's $20 million gift -- is not as far of a stretch as you might think. Harvard has a recent history of accepting and then returning gifts by Middle Eastern royals and despots. In 2001, the university returned a $2.5 million gift by the United Arab Emirates unelected leader, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Nahayan, after a group of Harvard Divinity School students tied the emir to the Abu Dhabi-based Zayed Center. The eponymous center, it turned out, was an anti-American organization that had hosted Holocaust deniers and held lectures to promote the idea that the United States military had staged the 9/11 attacks. Sheik Zayed's gift came with a caveat. Did Prince Alwaleed's?

With no answers forthcoming, serious questions remain:

  • How high up did authorization of the new segregation policy go?
  • Was Harvard's president Drew Gilpin Faust -- the first female president in the university's 372-year history and a prize-winning historian who specializes in the role of women in America's slaveholding south -- involved?
  • Did the segregation policy consider Prince Alwaleed's $20 million gift?
  • What happens to the livelihood of the male gym workers who are banned from working those six hours each week?
  • Will Harvard University embrace Sharia law in future policy decisions?

Harvard's "Jim Crow" gym has moved America backwards not beyond. Its potential consequences are best represented in the story of the boiled frog.

Ever tried boiling a frog? You can't do it by dropping a frog into a pot of boiling water. The frog will leap out, scalded perhaps, but very much alive. To successfully boil a frog, you must put the frog in a pan of nice, luke-warm water and slowly, ever so slowly, turn up the heat.

Before you know it you will have a boiled frog.

Harvard's "women only" gym hours: Monday 3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m., Tuesday 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m., Thursday 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.

Annie Jacobsen writes about aviation security and homeland security for a variety of newspapers, magazines and blogs. She is the author of the book, Terror in The Skies, Why 9/11 Could Happen Again.