For the last few weeks, the media has been rampant with outrage and defensiveness alike, on the matter that every Friday afternoon, an imam comes to Valley Park Middle School in Toronto to lead a prayer session lasting approximately 40 minutes during class time.
The story was first brought to my attention via Heather Mallick's column in the Toronto Star. Mallick's article was clear to discern itself as taking issue with the blatant disregard for gender equality, and not religion in and of itself. During the prayer session, menstruating girls are not allowed to participate in the session and are sectioned off behind a row of praying girls, whom are behind a row of praying boys, curtailed by a bench. (The picture and article are here) Mallick's issue was feminism, not religion. Though the two are inextricably linked, aren't they?
I hate to be the requisite atheist to point this out (someone once told me sarcasm does not permeate the boundaries of a blog post), but virtually every major religion, when adhered to in its orthodox form, has misogynistic undertones to it. Similarly, virtually all major religions have certain restrictions placed on women while they are menstruating, as it is generally viewed as being impure.
This school is allowing children to skip class so that they can pray during school hours in a secular public school system, all the while instilling the misconceived notion that menstruating girls are somehow unclean and should be pushed to the back of the figurative bus, which in this case is represented by the cafeteria turned makeshift mosque.
Fair enough; if the school is allowing prayer service for one faith group, then logically it should be accommodating every religious group's needs. After all, that is the reasoning employed by the Toronto District School Board, which stated that "As a public school board, we have a responsibility and an obligation to accommodate faith needs".
Yet, what has led me to be most incredulous at this situation stems from the reasoning behind the accommodation in the first place: before the school implemented its Muslim prayer service, students would leave the school during class time to go to a local mosque for the prayer service and then not come back to school once the prayer service at the mosque was over. This is not a reason for religious accommodation; this is a reason for discipline.
Personal anecdote alert: when I was in the ninth grade, I went to a very large regional public high school, which happened to have an excellent athletics program. I was on the basketball team, and felt that I needed some extra practice on my three-point shooting. I thought that there was no better time to do this than fourth period, since I could usually sneak away into one of the gyms, or one of the outdoor hoops. When my teachers (and basketball coaches) found out, they did not encourage my hooky-playing antics by allowing me to take time out of my studies in order to perfect a baseline three. Instead, they sent me to detention, called my mom and made sure I sat through fourth period.
The school is accommodating these students so that they can skip 40 minutes of class every Friday afternoon, to attend a prayer service, which according to the Muslim Canadian Congress isn't even mandatory according to Islamic religious customs and practices.
Valley Park Middle School is allowing certain students a get out of jail -- I mean school -- free card, under the guise of the protection of religious freedoms. However, in a pluralistic society, such as Canada, no religion has a place in a secular school during class time, plain and simple. Amen, amin and swaha to that.