York University religion incident sparks national petition

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The debate between gender equality and religious rights in Ontario sparked by an incident at York University is continuing to gain traction in the province.

The controversy was created when the university decided to accommodate a male student’s request to not work with female students for a group project due to religious reasons. The professor for the class denied the student, which was worked out between them, but York’s position stands.

And now an online petition—which has attracted over 21,000 signatures since its creation last Friday—is calling for York University to reverse its stance. The petition also asks for clarification on the rights debate to be provided by the Ontario Commission of Human Rights (OCHR).

“It just leaves so much uncertainty in the minds of so many people. We need some kind of clarity on this I think by the Human Rights Commission,” said Sheema Khan, the author of the petition.

Khan is a patent agent and a monthly columnist for The Globe and Mail.

She believes that the university’s decision reflects a narrow consideration of the situation, without a reflection on the broad issue of the balance of religious rights and gender equality,  and that the strong reaction to the petition is evidence of the “outrage” many feel at the stance taken by York University.

“You have to balance those two things, a religious right versus gender equality … And it just seems in this whole process that this didn’t even enter into the equation for York,” Khan said. “They just thought about, well, will it cause any harm to any of the female students if they don’t work with this fellow, and in their minds, ‘no, it doesn’t matter if they work with the guy or not.’”

In the petition, Khan notes that the OHCR in 2012 revealed a Policy on Competing Rights, which states that “decision makers should apply a contextual analysis that considers constitutional values and societal interests including equality rights of women.”

While it is the Rights Tribunal that takes up cases, according to Khan, the OHCR can fill to the Tribunal in “matters of what they call public interest.”

She hopes that the petition sends out a signal to the university and leads to more clarity on the rights debate.

The petition is hosted on change.org, a platform for online petitions worldwide.

“Sheema’s petition is a very interesting topic, obviously a big debate going on, so we figured this is something a lot of people would be interested in,” said Pascal Zamprelli,  acting director for change.org, on why media relations support was provided to Sheema for her petition. “And Sheema’s great too, right, because she’s well-known, knows the issue inside-out and she’s really passionate about it.”

He noted that Khan is hopeful the petition will help attract more attention to the issue, which is an important factor in creating change.

At the time of publication, York University had not responded to an interview request.

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