A group of Muslim boys kneel in prayer, encouraged by religious leaders in their act of worship. Behind them, a row of benches separates them from the girls. Still further back sits a smaller group of girls, completely segregated, waiting until the prayers are complete. These young women are experiencing their menstrual cycle and are not allowed to sit with the others.
This scene might not be so shocking if it wasn’t taking place in Toronto in a public school, but that’s exactly where it’s happening. Recently the administration of the school has invited Muslim children to leave their classes and converge on the school cafeteria to hold prayer services Friday afternoons. This was done for reasons of safety and convenience because many students had been walking down the street to the local mosque. Instead, school staff now set up the room, clear tables, configure the barricade between the boys and the girls and supervise.
Let me emphasize that this is not an Islamic academy — it is a public school in Toronto. Ironically, both Islamic history month and women’s history month coincide in October in this school district where the instruction of gender equality is openly encouraged. Yet this school’s administration facilitates a public display of segregation, not only between male and female, but also with those experiencing a natural act of reproductive physiology. I wonder what these “unclean” girls do following Friday afternoon prayers? What further humiliation do they experience if they accidentally bump into one of the boys after school?
The argument exists that this form of segregation is not discrimination, but rather a reflection of some “natural order” derived from the beliefs of a particular religion and if people choose to believe it, who are we to object? Yet how different, really, is this argument from the ones given to justify apartheid or the racial superiority of people of one skin colour over another? What appals me is that public funds are being used to help segregate girls, consequently encouraging a second-class status that women have fought against for generations. The public school system is an arena of equality, a safe place where gender, health, intellectual capacity or socioeconomic standing are all secondary to the equality we enjoy as citizens of this great country of Canada.
So what are the children learning at Valley Park Middle School? They are learning that despite the fact Canada has laws and charters that define our rights and clearly state that we do not discriminate on the basis of a person’s gender, there are situations where rights are set aside because it is convenient.
More alarming, they learn that given the right set of circumstances, Canadian values are negotiable, that we will allow discrimination to take place on school property if there is a religious reason to do so. This of course begs the question of how long will we resist Shariah law, which would introduce a parallel justice system that could make room for behaviour most Canadians would find alarming, if not appalling.
The public school is not a place to reinforce religious practices, particularly when those practices contradict public values. We need to respect all religions but recognize not all religions have the same outcomes. If these outcomes threaten the safety or values of our society, then it is our duty to not give them the stamp of approval in our public schools.
St. Albert Gazette | Wednesday, August 03, 2011 06:00 am | Dee-Ann Schwanke
Dee-Ann Schwanke has been writing for the St. Albert Gazette for five years. She works in Edmonton.