Reprinted from National Post.
It’s rare that I see a photograph that makes my blood boil in anger. Or that leads me to share the opinions of Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick. But a picture published in Saturday’s Star managed to do both in one afternoon.
The photo depicts a row of girls, sitting in the cafeteria of Valley Park Middle School in Toronto. The row is segregated behind a mass of students who are participating in an Islamic prayer service. The reason the girls in the back are not praying is because – wait for it – they have their period.
One is tempted to say: is this the? Have I stumbled into a time warp, where “unclean” women must be prevented from “defiling” other persons? It’s bad enough that the girls at Valley Park have to enter the cafeteria from the back, while the boys enter from the front, but does the entire school have the right to know they are menstruating?
These aren’t college kids, who are adults or on the verge of adulthood, and can make up their own minds about whether they are comfortable with religious practices which relegate women to the back of the bus. These are impressionable young women, grade 8 students, who are being sent a very clear message: you are second-class citizens to the boys in your school, and third-class at certain times of the month.
As the mother of a little girl who just celebrated her second birthday, the thought that she – or any girl – should be conditioned to believe this makes me physically sick. This is the same type of discrimination against which Canadian soldiers fought in Afghanistan, where, in the name of religion, women were shrouded in burkas and girls forbidden from even going to school. It is the type of thinking which in its most extreme forms justifies female circumcision, honour killings, and men beating their wives.
Now, in a Canadian public school, religious leaders are being allowed to instil the same type of message. At least there are no burkas involved. Yet.
In defence of the school’s practice, Toronto District School Board Education (TDSB) Director Chris Spence stated that “As a public school board, we have a responsibility and an obligation to accommodate faith needs.” But those “faith needs” are a matter of debate.
According to the Muslim Canadian Congress, Friday prayers are not even compulsory. The group also opposes the gender segregation imposed on the children. The MCC is contemplating legal action to force the TDSB to respect the Ontario Education Act, which states, “a board shall not permit any person to conduct religious exercises or to provide instruction that includes religious indoctrination in a particular religion or religious belief in a school.”
This regulation respects the 1988 Ontario Court of Appeal ruling in the case of Zylberberg v. Sudbury Board of Education. The court held that the Lord’s Prayer could no longer be spoken in public schools, on the grounds that it discriminated against students from other faiths, or who had no religion at all. Based on that decision, the current practice at Valley Park violates the rights of not only non-Muslim students, who must give over their cafeteria space to another religion, but Muslim students who don’t share this particular way of practicing Islam.
“Faith needs” should not supersede the right to equality in publicly-funded institutions. In a pluralist society like Canada, parents are free to teach their children whatever beliefs they please – in private and on their own time, however offensive those beliefs might be to others.
It is quite instructive, however, to be made aware of just how offensive some of those beliefs are. I therefore thank the Toronto Star for publishing the photograph of the prayer service at Valley Park Middle School. The picture tells more than a thousand words. It is a wake up call.