A proposal by two McGill law faculty students to have women-only hours at the downtown campus gym is causing an uproar at the Montreal university.

Soumia Allalou, a second-year McGill law student, started the proposal for women-only gym hours along with fellow student Raymond Grafton. (Photo used with permission from Soumia Allalou)

When student Soumia Allalou, 23, decided to get back into shape, she contacted the university’s gym and asked when women-only hours were. She was surprised to find that there was no such thing.

“Personally I prefer to work out in a women-only environment. I just kind of assumed they would have women-only hours. I asked them if there was a project for that in the works and they said that they didn’t think so,” said Allalou, who wears a hair covering and cites religious reasons for her preference. She took to Facebook to voice her concerns.

“I feel like there are many women who have a variety of reasons for preferring to work out in a women-only environment. Whether it’s how comfortable they are, whether they have had bad experiences at the gym in the past, whether they have less access to the machines. A lot of women tell me they feel intimidated in the weights section,” said Allalou. 

Women-only hours not unprecedented

Allalou and another law faculty student, Raymond Grafton, have approached the university’s student union about instituting women-only hours at the gym a few times a week.

Such a move would not be totally unprecedented at McGill. The university’s pool currently has women-only swim hours that were instituted after a female student brought forward similar concerns.

But not everyone is reacting well to Allalou’s proposal. An online petition entitled “We oppose women-only hours at the McGill Fitness Centre” has been started by a user identified as Concerned McGill Student. The petition, addressed to the McGill student union and to university administrators, aims to collect 300 signatures.

“All McGill students should be treated equally. Exclusive rights to the gym should not be granted to specific demographic groups. Women who refuse to use the gym when men are present make a choice that they alone are responsible for,” reads the petition.

Several of the people who have signed the petition voice similar concerns. One comment by an individual identified as S.B reads: “This is incredibly regressive and paints in dangerously broad strokes of dangerously black and white paint. I don’t deserve to be treated as a potential sexual predator wherever I go – neither do you.”

Another comment from Phoebe Y reads: “This is absolutely not the solution to a greater issue of inclusivity, body positivity and respect for other religions and identities.”

Proposal could go to vote

The Students Society of McGill University (SSMU) is working with Allalou on the possibility of presenting the proposal at a meeting. If that happens, the proposal will go to a vote for endorsement by the student associations represented by the union.

“There has been backlash saying that women should just get over it and feel comfortable around men, regardless of religious or personal reasons that lead them to feel uncomfortable. But when we are talking about religious freedom, it’s not a question of asking someone to get over it. That is asking them to give up tenets of their religious practice, which is not something that we should be standing for at McGill,” said Claire Stewart-Kanigan, the student union’s vice-president of university affairs.

The proposal will then need to be taken to McGill’s director of athletics before it can proceed further. No date has been set yet for the proposal to be brought to the SSMU for a vote.