Caption from the TorStar: "At Valley Park Middle School, Muslim students participate in the Friday prayer service. Menstruating girls, at the very back, do not take part."

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 centre 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. For many Muslims, the Friday service, complete with sermon and congregational prayer, is obligatory. Others believe that it’s optional for women to attend, that it’s not compulsory for anyone, or that if men skip three Jumm’ah prayers in a row, it’s a sign they’ve lost their faith. 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 schools throughout Ontario, Muslim students have organised themselves into unofficial, cohesive communities – fasting together during Ramadan, praying in groups at the library during their breaks, planning ‘Eid parties, skipping class to fix hijabs, gossiping in the bathroom and creating religious-fellowship student clubs.

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 apparently makes up over 80% of the total student population. (source)

Previously, large groups of 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 minimising lost instructional time.

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 in Arabic. (*gasp*)

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. (source)

While Heather Mallick of the Toronto Star is upset that excluding menstruation girls from prayer does nothing to help the school board 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? (source)

Here’s a newsflash: women pray while menstruating. 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.

I really see this issue as a missed opportunity.

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 organise prayers at school – it’s how over a decade ago the Muslim Students’ Association was created.

If the parents involved feared that their children were not mature enough to research and deal with religious topics without guidance, then perhaps a mosque liaison or a supportive Muslim teacher could have volunteered to act as a guide and resource. Can you imagine what the students could have created if they were left to develop their own community? Perhaps a Jumm’ah prayer where girls and boys both wrote and gave the sermons, prayed in sections side by side, and shared the call to prayer? But we’ll never know because adult expectations were placed upon the youth, seemingly without consultation. It could have been a perfect opportunity to help the students develop their leadership, research, and speaking skills while instilling useful religious morals.

However, as a practising Muslim and parent, I also empathize and understand the solution they chose. Why not bring in an imam and have a half-hour of rich Islamic culture and religious instruction from an “authentic source”? (Though, another option could have been for the parents to find a volunteer who would escort the students to and from the mosque. But maybe they weren’t happy with the mosque.)

When I first heard the story I thought it was brilliant, inclusive and a wonderful addition to the pluralism that can be fostered in our public schools. Many Muslim parents rely on the public school system and desperately socialise their children to guard themselves from assumed majority norms that often exclude and marginalize Muslims. Islamic schools may pose ideological or economic burdens for some families – so finding a public school system open to fostering Islamic culture and accommodating the religious needs of students is a serious godsend.

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, no reason whatsoever for girls in grade 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. Barriers and positioning have the capacity to tell students that before God women are sexual beings that need to be hidden from men – also reinforcing notions that Muslim women are superior to non-Muslim women, but only as long as their sexuality is guarded and controlled.

Or maybe not. 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.

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.