By Nick Dunne
While Soumia Allalou worked on her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, she regularly used the women-only gym hours provided at the university’s gym. They were convenient, she felt more comfortable and often went with friends. But after moving to Montreal to study law at McGill, she was surprised by the lack of information on the university’s website about women-only hours.
“I just assumed they would have them,” says Allalou, 23. The athletic department informed her there were no such hours, but that she could come early when no one was around and “work in a corner.”
So Allalou began to work on a survey.
She contacted the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) and began talks with Jill Barker, the McGill athletics manager of marketing and communications. While Allalou says Barker was initially open to the idea of women-only hours, things changed after the school received backlash from an article about her attempts in The McGill Tribune.
Posted on the Spotted At McGill Facebook page, the article sparked a petition against the idea of women-only times — with more than 600 signatures — which was sent to Ollivier Dyens, McGill’s deputy provost of student life and learning. Afterwards Allalou says the university unilaterally cut off communication with her. However, on March 19, 2015, a day before Dyens released a media statement on his decision, he and Allalou met.
“He said, ‘Look, we basically disagree on how to solve the problem that you’re thinking. It’s your choice how you decide to work out,’” recalls Allalou. “‘I don’t see a modesty issue at the gym, and, as a matter of principle, McGill will not segregate its services.’”
In his press release, Dyens defended the decision, saying “Mc- Gill is a community where every form of diversity (cultural, linguistic, gender, religion, etc.) is celebrated and encouraged,” again referring to women-only gym times as “the segregation of services.”
But Allalou says she isn’t looking to segregate services.
“[It’s only] a couple of hours a week and we’re talking about a separate room. The main gym [would still] be co-ed.”
Before communication had been cut off, Barker had shown Allalou the Varsity Weight Room, usually reserved for student athletes, and Allalou estimated it could accommodate upwards of 30 people. Using this room would not prevent students from accessing the co-ed gym. Because it wasn’t directly addressing the root cause, Allalou said that Dyens told her they would instead continue to train staff and encourage women to report inappropriate behaviour. But Allalou says that isn’t enough.
“That’s exactly what the [facilities] have right now and that’s not working. What about women who can’t access the gym?” she says.
While there was similar resistance from some students when the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) sought to implement women-only hours in 2013, the path was less rocky. Demand from both the Muslim Students’ Association and the Centre for Women and Trans People — citing concerns about paying for the athletic facilities but being unable to access them for religious reasons or comfort issues — led to a RSU survey in which 2,000 people responded in favour of the women-only hours.
The survey was presented to Anthony Seymour, Ryerson athletics’ manager of recreation, who created a pilot project last September.
Working with the RSU, he decided to offer an hour and a half every day at the Ryerson Athletic Centre (RAC), at times near peak hours. He was initially worried that there wouldn’t be enough demand for the hours, but says the response has “far exceeded [his] expectations.”
Before women-only hours, Seymour estimates only 10 per cent of members working out in the weight room were female.
“When we started looking at some of our busier times, we were getting 70-100 people [and] we were really only getting seven to 10 women in the weight room working out,” Seymour says.
Given that 54 per cent of undergraduate students at Ryerson identify as female, the number of women using the weight room was unsatisfactory.
According to Seymour, the morning shifts averaged just over 24 women, while the afternoon shifts averaged 28 women in October — when the hours were being tested — and found that up to 60 women were coming through during women-only times.
Sydney McInnis, a first-year journalism student, says she sometimes feels intimidated because she doesn’t know how to use all the equipment.
“I just feel judged. People looking at me and being like, ‘she doesn’t fucking know what she’s doing,’” she says.
McInnis has used the hours just twice but says she enjoyed the experience.
“It turned out to be a better time. I didn’t feel so intimidated, [with] big men everywhere lifting heavy stuff. It was kind of nice to not be around that,” she says. “The entire reason why I go to the RAC and not the MAC is because the people there are a little bit less intimidating and a little bit more amateur … but still, I will never go into the weight room at the RAC unless I’m with [a male friend]. I’m too scared.”
Seymour says that some patrons have told him using the women-only hours has made them more comfortable using the co-ed hours. Allalou says she would hope for similar results at McGill.
McGill currently offers women- only pool hours on the basis of “modesty concerns.” While Barker and Dyens declined to speak with The Eyeopener, Dyens reiterated the university’s stance against women-only gym times because they “do not believe in the segregation of [their] services” in an emailed statement.
Several negative comments on national news sites have criticized Allalou’s push for women-only hours as solely a religious accommodation, but she says it’s part of a larger women’s issue.
“We’re talking about a gender issue here, not necessarily just a religious accommodation issue. I’m talking about a broad range of women who have many reasons why they can’t access the gym,” Allalou says. “At the end of the day, I just want to increase the health and fitness of women at McGill.”