U of T student Wongene Kim, who says he is shy around the opposite sex, could not stomach “the thought of spending two hours every week” in “a small classroom [with] about 40 women….sitting in a semicircle.” His request for accommodation was denied because, as Human Rights Tribunal* adjudicator Mary Truemner put it, “his discomfort is based on his own ‘individual preference’ as a shy person.”
Kim might have done better had he kept his shyness to himself, and instead claimed that deeply-held religious convictions prevented him from associating with women. This was the argument made by the anonymous York University student whose request to be exempted from group work with female peers was supported by the dean’s office at that institution last month.
Although these decisions were made by different bodies and do not represent any unified policy, they are nonetheless quite illustrative. Not many people think that Kim should be permitted to stay home from class because of shyness around girls — a fictitious headline reporting his case on Facebook, for instance, reads: “Hero survives semicircle of women.” The aforementioned York student, however, received significant support — despite the fact that religious scholars consulted by his professor (whose initial refusal of the student’s request was overruled by the dean’s office) assured him that there was no scriptural basis for his “firm religious belief” that he must not associate with women.
The disparity between the way in which these two cases were handled is a paradigmatic example of the reflexive, pervasive, and increasingly disturbing latitude afforded to religious groups and individuals by courts, universities, and human rights bodies. While freedom of religion is essential to a fair and just society, it takes on entirely new proportions when it extends beyond protection from interference, and begins to include exemptions from minimal standards of decent behavior — like respecting women’s equality rights.
It is one thing to guarantee that individuals will not be harassed in their places of worship, or forced to practice the majority religion, and quite another to grant them special privileges to infringe upon the rights of others. The prevailing wisdom in Canadian jurisprudence, unfortunately, is that when religious freedoms come into conflict with equality rights, these competing claims must be balanced against each other on a case-by-case basis. Thus, requests like that of the anonymous York student are handled with an eye to achieving compromise between religious freedom and gender equality.
This formula fails to acknowledge the crucial distinction between different orders of rights and freedoms. Some rights, like the right to be treated equally and without discrimination, are — as former Supreme Court Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé has stressed — “more fundamental than others.” It is no sort of fairness to weigh the rights of women to be treated equally, against the ‘right’ of religious groups and individuals to treat them unequally. The fact that such a coldly utilitarian balancing act is engaged in by our courts and universities is an affront to human dignity, regardless of the outcome of any particular decision.
With many more similar cases surely on the horizon, we must consider whether or not religious groups and individuals — who insist vehemently that society protect them from discrimination — should be given special privileges to discriminate against those they deem unworthy of these same protections.
Simon Capobianco is a third-year student studying math and philosophy.
Wongene Daniel Kim’s complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO), claiming his professor was biased against him because of his gender, is an embarrassment to U of T. Not only was his bid for accommodation baseless, it also served to trivialize legitimate issues of discrimination and human rights.
Kim cites shyness around women as his reason for skipping his Women and Gender Studies (WGS) course, in which he was the only male in a class of 40 females. Consequently, he requested that Professor Sarah Trimble waive the 15 per cent participation and attendance portion of his grade in the course. Kim’s request reveals two damning characteristics: an inability to work with half of the world’s population, and an arrogant sense of entitlement.
There was no other reason offered for Kim’s discomfort with the class, except for his individual preference as a shy person and his belief that women would be unwilling to interact with him because of his gender. This claim is illogical in itself, making sweeping assumptions about women and their perception of men. His claims are unfounded given that Kim never attended a single class and gave the women therein no chance to confirm or deny his presumptions; his concerns were purely speculative.
The irony is that this was a WGS course, whose core goal is to provide information on gender issues, so as to foster more equitable and harmonious relationships between women and men.
Naturally, Professor Trimble refused to grant Kim’s request. However, instead of dropping the course, Kim decided to appeal to the HRTO on the grounds of gender and racial discrimination. In addition to accusing Trimble of being unaccommodating and giving him low marks for his assignments, Kim alleges she paid more attention to a non-Asian female student while he was trying to negotiate a higher grade.
Kim was grasping at straws, and wasted the HRTO’s time with his entitlement complex. Instead of trying to overcome his shyness and take responsibility for his actions, Kim expected the whole system to oblige him, blaming them for his failing grade in the course. Apparently Kim is unaware that the root of the problem, and the barrier to his success, was his personal decision to cut class rather than a prejudiced professor or hostile class environment. Accordingly, the HRTO did not grant him a hearing.
It has been suggested that if this situation had been reversed — had a woman filed a complaint about feeling uncomfortable in a classroom full of men — it would have been a legitimate cause for concern. One argument cited women-only gym times as an example of a similar situation to Kim’s, except the roles were exchanged and an accommodation was actually made. Is that not unfair, and exemplary of the discrimination Kim is trying to fight? The answer is a resounding no.
There is a long, and often brutal, history of women being systemically excluded from different facets of society, preventing them from enjoying life in accordance with basic human rights. Although the majority of legal barriers against women have been lifted in Canada, women continue to face discrimination — such as sexual harassment or biased hiring policies — solely because of their gender. This prevents them from living in security, and limits opportunities in life. In such situations, there is ample evidence to show women are detrimentally affected.
To equate Kim’s specious cries of discrimination with legitimate infringements on human rights is a mockery of real problems of inequity — whether due to gender, race, ability, sexual orientation, or other distinctions — we continue to face today. Had Kim actually attended class, maybe he would have realized that.
Victoria Wicks is a first-year student at Trinity College studying philosophy and political science
*Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated that Mary Truemner is an U of T Governing Council adjudicator.