By guest contributor Wood Turtle; a longer version of this post was originally published at her blog.
At what point does religious inclusion become too much for a public school board to handle? Apparently, it’s when the menstrual cycles of 12-year-old girls become the center of public debate.
Every week for the past three years, Valley Park Middle School in Toronto has held official Jumm’ah prayers in the cafeteria. Like many issues in the Muslim community, there’s a wide variety of opinion and practice – but many agree that Friday prayers is vital to the faith and identity of Muslims worldwide.
In previous years, large groups of Valley Park students would sign themselves out, walk to a nearby mosque to attend Jumm’ah prayers, missing hours of instructional time by hanging out with their friends after services instead of returning to school. Some didn’t even bother going to the mosque – Friday prayers were used by some as an excuse to skip. When parents approached the school with worries and safety concerns that their children were missing classes, they all agreed to allow an imam to come into the school and hold prayers on school property, keeping the kids supervised and minimizing lost instructional time.
The solution to provide full religious services for students was agreed upon by parents, stakeholders and the school administration to address the needs of the school’s large Muslim population – which makes up over 80% of the total student population. The program was a success, with about 400 students out of 1,200 (about 30% of the Muslim students) regularly attending prayers. Each week, community volunteers come into the school and help set up the cafeteria as a makeshift mosque. Clean sheets are laid down, tables create a barrier to maintain gender segregation, and an adult community leader acts as an imam to lead the students in a sermon and prayer. For 30-45 minutes, while other students finish their lunch period and start afternoon classes, Muslim students have the option of fulfilling a religious duty.
But last week the Toronto District School Board became embroiled in controversy, when a coalition including the Canadian Hindu Advocacy, Jewish Defense League (Canada) and the Muslim Canadian Congress announced their opposition to the school’s prayer service. Arguments against the program naturally hold firm to the idea that publicly funded schools should not facilitate religious services – not during official class hours, and certainly not by an outside religious leader who provides unsupervised and unmonitored sermons.
But what’s really got everyone’s hijab in a bunch is the menstruating children. Oh, won’t someone please think of the menstruating children?
The media and opponents to the prayer service are using the controversy as a wonderful opportunity to illustrate just how poorly Islam treats women – pointing to perceived gender inequities and arguing that organized Islamic prayer cannot happen in Ontario schools because it’s in violation of the Education Act’s “gender equity” policy. Tarek Fatah of the Muslim Canadian Congress argues that the school board is:
…using tax money to tell girls that they are second-class citizens… Deep inside is a racist view that Muslims are not considered equal human beings, and that they can treat women how they want, and it’s nobody else’s concern.
While Heather Mallick of the Toronto Star is upset that excluding menstruating girls from prayer does nothing to help the schoolboard develop girls’ self-esteem:
As for singling out girls who have their periods — why not just make them wear a hat with a big arrow or a flag? — no one’s discussing that. Except me, in this column. Why should it fall to me? Can some school trustee, male or female, please stand up to defend shy girls of tender age?
Here’s a newsflash: women pray while menstruating. All. Over. The. World. There is at least one girl in the above photo who is praying while menstruating and at least one boy who lost his ritual purity by farting right before prayer started. Some pictured above enjoy feeling like they belong to a larger community and find identity and social cohesiveness in the service. Some become religiously inspired. And some attend prayers to skip out on class or are doing it just because their parents told them to. And really, it shouldn’t be anyone’s business.
Schools make reasonable religious accommodations all the time: providing alternate activities for Muslim girls (who want) to opt-out of co-ed swim classes; kosher, halal, and vegan cafeteria meals; and scheduling tests and exams outside of non-Christian holidays to name a few. Many students already organize prayers at school – it’s how over a decade ago the Muslim Students’ Association was created.
Now, I don’t agree with how the prayers are run. But then again, I say the same thing about the mosque next door. There is no reason whatsoever for girls in grades 7 and 8 to sit behind a barrier in their school cafeteria, when one hour before prayer they’re given the equal opportunity to engage with, learn from and teach their peers.
In a later article, Mallick makes grand assumptions about the segregation issue, describing female students as isolated – suffering humiliation, contempt and maltreatment. Without saying exactly who is subjecting these girls to such horrendous treatment, we’re left to assume that it’s either the male imam or Islam itself slapping the face of “female dignity.” Now, my own opinion also makes great assumptions about the self-worth, esteem and religious preferences held by these students. Perhaps they see no conflict between the school board’s “gender equity policy” and praying with a group of sisters in the back.
The Toronto District School Board claims that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms trumps the Education Act, that student’s participation in the services is voluntary, and that while they do not have the authority to tell faith groups how to pray, they do have a “responsibility and an obligation” to accommodate the faith requirements of students. But to what extent does the school have a responsibility to encourage gender equality and safeguard universalism within a religious tradition – especially when they’ve invited external community members and scheduled full religious services during class time?
Now, if holding the prayers on school grounds was the best solution for this particular school and specific group of students, then perhaps it should have been up to the students themselves to decide how to run and organize Jumm’ah prayers. And who knows, maybe they were consulted. But everyone seems to be too concerned with where the helpless and oppressed girls are sitting to find out how they actually feel about the situation.
It shouldn’t fall to anyone in the media to determine whether or not menstruating girls should participate in the prayer. The very fact that they did attend prayers illustrates their personal desire to be a part of the active community. They certainly don’t have to – but they did, ideally because they find value in the services. The students pictured at the back of the room are sitting there because they want to. No one is forcing all of the Muslim students to pray. No one is forcing the menstruating students to sit out.
Gasping outrageously that all of the girls sit behind the boys and that they’ve erected a barrier to better delineate the gender segregation line (magically protecting students from a raging orgy of hormones while communing with God), only serves to villainize the Muslim community, promote religious misconceptions and further propagates the image of the Muslim woman as voiceless, oppressed and in need of rescuing.