You may not believe this, but the Michigan of the East – Harvard University itself – has yet again meandered its way into the center of national controversy. The Crimson bastion of righteousness appears to have offended Americans by committing a faux pas of enormous magnitude: It has restricted access to a campus gym for a few hours a week.

Six Muslim women, backed by the Harvard College Women’s Center, petitioned the university for all-female gym hours so that those who follow traditional religious dress codes – like keeping hair and skin covered while in public – could dress more appropriately when exercising. This includes primarily Muslim, but also Jewish and Christian women practicing orthodox or conservative religious strains. And so Harvard fatefully obliged and branded six whole hours a week at one of its multiple workout facilities “girls only.” Let the tongues wag and the tickers scroll – we’ve got a problem.

Sexism has infiltrated the Ivies. The media are eating it up, opting to frame the story specifically in terms of gender, and the public is divided accordingly, separating into teams cheerleading for their sex of choice. Few appear to be loitering in the middle ground. While some argue that the ladies’ special new privilege is well deserved, others are arguing that it’s downright wrong. Men and women alike are crying foul, saying the new policy is sexist because it privileges women over men.

But the group at the heart of the matter has gotten lost in the shuffle. In the rush to discuss the deliciously controversial possibility of reverse sexism, it seems that the sizeable stake that minority women have in the matter has slipped through the cracks of this policy debate. When I first heard about Harvard’s bold move, I assumed that the controversy would focus on the university’s audacious accommodation to a religious minority. I was stunned to find the news coverage glossing over this aspect completely and opting to focus almost entirely on the sexism angle. As the media sounded off, I couldn’t help but think about the consequences of painting with such a broad brush, and the fact that, most often, the same group seems to be hidden by the strokes: minority women.

This population is held down by the discrimination that plagues both women as well as minorities. And it’s nothing new for these women to see their plight lost in the tide of wider themes. While the consensus, to a large extent, seems to be that women are on their way to shattering the age-old glass ceiling and gaining an equal footing with men, many issues confronting minority women are actually worsening. The progress that white women are experiencing has, to a large extent, yet to trickle down to the Latina, black and Native American women. But, because the rhetoric is too-often polarized along gender lines – like what happened in the case of Harvard’s policy – minority women are lumped together with the all-encompassing female demographic. The troublesome situation facing this cross-section of women is overlooked.

The statistics are revealing. Minority women are disproportionately more impoverished than white women and the prospects for upward mobility are nil. While the number of women in higher education has soared past the number of men in recent years, the number of black and Latina women in college still trails the enrollment of white women by more than 5 and 10 percent respectively. While the average woman’s wage is slowly closing the gap between that of their male counterparts, the average minority woman’s wage continues to lag strikingly far behind wages of both white women and minority men. Along with this, perhaps unsurprising, is the fact that the number of minority women collecting food stamps dwarfs that of white women. The rate of uninsured women nationwide is under 20 percent, while more than a third of Latina and Native American women remain uninsured. These women suffer disproportionately from premature death, disease and disabilities.

But perhaps there is no better example of the worsening yet consistently unacknowledged state of minority women in America than the staggering levels by which this demographic has been devastated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. More than 80 percent of the women diagnosed with HIV or AIDS in 2005 were Latina or black women. Further, the disease is the leading cause of death among black women ages between ages 25 and 34. These statistics are especially revealing when you consider that the infection rate among white women is only 15 percent.

The fact that the feminist movement has largely skipped over minority women is an unacknowledged truth. If we continue to ignore the glaring and inherent disparities within the female demographic, we are sentencing minority women to a perpetual and unjustifiable underprivileged status. As for Harvard, whether these religious women deserve testosterone-free gym time is debatable, but the women involved must at least be acknowledged for who they are, not just for their estrogen level.

– Ashlea Surles can be reached at ajsurles@umich.edu.

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