A Nova Scotia high school student is asserting she was reduced to “second-class citizenship” after her Halifax aikido school submitted to sharia law and accommodated a MUSLIM male student’s religious request not to touch his female classmates.
National Post (h/t Maria J) The man also refused to bow, apparently telling the dojo’s sensei that he only bowed to Allah. Bowing is a big part of the Japanese martial art, and aikido students are expected to regularly bow to classmates, the sensei and the front wall of the dojo, which is traditionally adorned with portraits of aikido’s pioneers. And when it came time for the customary end-of-class handshakes, “he would shake hands with all the other men in the dojo, but he wouldn’t even come over and look at the women … he just ignored us,” said Ms. Power.
“I felt degraded, discriminated against, I felt like a woman in the 1950s,” said Sonja Power, 17, a former student at Halifax’s East Coast Yoshinkan Aikido, a school operated out of the city’s Lakeside Community Centre. “We wouldn’t allow someone using their religion to discriminate against someone’s race, so why would they use it to discriminate against somebody’s gender?”
Ms. Power, a resident of the Halifax suburb of Upper Tantallon, NS, had been a student at East Coast Yoshinkan since the age of six. In the spring of 2012, Ms. Power, then 15, was just on the verge of earning her aikido black belt when she said a man enrolled at the school and told its owner that, for reasons of his Islamic faith, he was not allowed physical contact with women.
The request would not have been noticed in a pottery class or a fencing course, but Aikido — like any martial art — is uniquely physical. The ultimate effect, said Ms. Power, was that sessions were suddenly being divvied up by sex. The school’s sensei “would put all the women on one side and then offer a side for the Muslim man so there wouldn’t be any problems,” she said.
Along with her mother, Ms. Power said she approached the sensei with her concerns about the new environment, but was told that it was the student’s religious right. “[The sensei] told us to get used to it,” said Michele Walsh, Ms. Power’ mother.
Aiming to complete her training, Ms. Power nevertheless stayed in the school for another five months, but said her breaking point came when the male student began distributing religious literature. In July of 2012, said Ms. Power, the student handed out copies of Islam; From darkness to light a booklet written by Toronto-based Islamic author Suhail Kapoor.
Several passages stuck out for the 15-year-old. “[When] a woman chooses to show her body in one form or another, the message is only one: she wants attention and possibly much more,” it reads. The booklet also authorizes husbands to administer a “light strike” to their wives in cases of “serious moral misconduct.”
“I couldn’t go to the same dojo with someone who thinks that way,” said Ms. Power. “I thought why would someone’s religion — something that they choose to follow — trump my gender, which is something that I was born with?”
Steve Nickerson, a fifth degree black belt and the owner and sensei of East Coast Yoshinkan Aikido, wrote in an email to the National Post that although he met the student’s request to avoid physical contact with women, “I believe every person should have an equal opportunity to participate in recreational activities and I would not deny this student access to my classes,” noting that he made the accommodation with the confidence that it would not be “disadvantaging any other person’s participation in my classes.”
You can reach Steve Nickerson here:
(902) 454-5647 or (902) 431-2148
The decision, he said, was supported by both the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission and the Halifax Recreation Administration, which operates Lakeside Community Centre. Lisa Teryl, a lawyer for the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, was unable to comment on the aikido case specifically, but acknowledged the stickiness of weighing the “competing rights” of gender equity versus religious beliefs.
“In the fabric of Canadian society, [gender segregation] isn’t something that, in a secular sense, we support … we generally see it as a bad thing,” she said. At the same time, she said, the law requires reasonable accommodation of religious views, which are generally given much higher consideration than mere matters of personal preference.