Muslim students upset over drawing nudes

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Famous nude art

Joyce Wang

IT'S NOT THE VIVID GIRLS, BUT IT'LL DO. The visual arts department features classes which can't be passed unless students complete nude drawings. The decision has chagrined some Muslin students.

A recent decision by Western’s visual arts department has left some Muslim students torn between their love for drawing and painting and their devotion to Islam.

After making accommodations for students for several years, the visual arts department added a note to the bottom of nine course descriptions effective Sept. 1, 2005, indicating “some sessions may involve drawing from the nude (female or male) as a required component of the course.”

Though the note was added a year and a half ago, some students are just starting to feel its effects and voice their concerns.

Two students, who asked to remain nameless, expressed their concerns to The Gazette.

One fourth-year Muslim student said until last year, she and some other students were allowed to negotiate alternatives with their professors, including drawing action figures and break-dancers.

Not wanting to cause a fuss, she drew a female nude model in her first-year introductory course, but felt uncomfortable and regretted doing it afterwards.

She spoke to Western’s Muslim chaplain, Munir El-Kassem, who advised she should not draw nudes as it isn’t permitted by Islam.

“When it comes to Islam, modesty and a display of modesty is something which is part and parcel with the faith,” El-Kassem said.

“You see this in the way Muslims dress,” he said. “We believe the body is to be covered in a certain way, according to certain principles and, by extension, to draw a model who has shed all the clothes is completely against what the faith would permit. It’s very simple.”

Due to the increasing frequency of student concerns and the faculty’s general discomfort with compromising the curriculum, the visual arts department added the note to the descriptions of several courses which may or may not include life drawing, depending on individual professors’ choices each year.

“By indicating to students that drawing from the nude is a required part of course work, the visual arts department is respectfully attempting to assist students in making choices for their education,” said Patrick Mahon, chair of the visual arts department, who is on sabbatical this year.

“The department offers a wide range of studio courses and if students do not choose to take drawing and painting " for whatever reason " they are not required to do so.”

The note only affects upper-year courses, and individual arrangements can still be made in 020 and 100-level courses because they are considered introductory.

Michael Milde, associate dean of Arts and Humanities, said the note was discussed formally and informally at various levels, and all department chairs in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities approved it.

In addition, the note received approval from the DAP virtual committee, which is comprised of deans of academic programs. Since no one objected, the note was added by the Arts and Humanities Educational Policy Committee in the summer of 2005.

El-Kassem said he was unaware of the policy change and would be prepared to formally challenge it.

Hassan Ahmad, president of the Muslim Students’ Association, said he and the MSA would like to follow up the matter so Muslim students won’t have to deal with it in the future.

“The university shouldn’t make this black and white,” Ahmad said. “They should accept that they have a variety of people from a variety of different backgrounds. It’s not fair to just say, ‘this is how The West does things.’ You have to be tolerant of others’ traditions, because we have important traditions too.”

Milde and Mahon said the note wasn’t meant to attack anyone’s religious or personal freedom.

Milde said some professors felt the curriculum was being “detoured.”

Professor David Merritt, who teaches several art studio courses including drawing and painting, said he and the faculty “didn’t feel they could fairly substitute their projects for alternatives at [the upper-year] level.” He added “There was concern about having to manage two syllabi at the same time and about fragmentation of the course.”

Merritt said he’s allowed alternatives for students in the past but wasn’t happy about them, adding he likes using nude models because you can teach empathy by putting yourself in the place of what you’re drawing.

“I know for religious reasons people have concerns, but I’d rather not approach the human body from that perspective,” he said. “I’d rather approach it as something we all have in common.”

The students who talked to The Gazette said they’d be happy if they could at least regain the old policy, adding they’d be willing to take zeros on life drawing assignments or draw clothed models in different positions and situations.

“Just give us a choice. That’s all we ask,” one student said. “The old policy was fine...even if they want us to provide more letters...that’s fine.”

Ultimately, it’s up to the Visual Arts Department to create its own curriculum, Milde said.

“As much as we would like to be sensitive to everybody’s concerns, academic freedom says you have to describe the curriculum as you find it, and if some of that isn’t compatible with certain people’s beliefs, then it does create an unfortunate tension.”

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