Also see my letter to The Toronto Star

The Toronto District School Board has recently come into a lot of heat for accommodating Friday Prayers at school for Muslim students. The controversy was sparked when the Canadian Hindu Advocacy group objected to this practice, which has been happening for several years at schools in Toronto and surrounding regions.

Many major Canadian newspapers have published editorials calling an end to this practice and have offered numerous arguments; public opinion seems to be in their favour too. One of the main arguments proposed by supporters of the ban is that religious services shouldn’t be offered in a secular publicly funded school. If the Lord’s Prayer had to be banned, then Muslims too shouldn’t be allowed to offer their prayers they argue.

The main flaw in this argument is that Lord’s Prayer is not analogous to Friday Prayers. That is, Friday Prayers are a voluntary service organized by the students while the Lord’s Prayer was administered by the school and all students were expected to participate. The school is not indoctrinating a particular creed; it’s simply accommodating religious needs of students who choose to practice. If the issue is with an Imam coming to lead the prayers; this can be changed and students could lead as is the case in most schools (including the one I attended). Interesting to also note is the bigoted notion that the Imam might be preaching intolerance and hate.

One must not forget that religious practice is not banned from public schools; I quite clearly recall the Christian club at my school assembling for prayers and organizing other religious events. We still have Christmas assemblies at public schools too. Also, keep in mind that these prayers only take place from November to March during school hours. This is because the prayer time varies seasonally and it expires before the end of the school day during those months.

Another blatantly false accuation being made is non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the cafeteria during prayer. People of other faiths aren’t even prohibited in mosques, let alone a temporary prayer space. Infact, these prayers are often supervised by a non-Muslim teacher and in my personal case, my non-Muslim friends would drop by the cafeteria during prayers. Not only are they allowed, non-Muslims are generally encouraged and welcome to attend Muslim prayers.

The fact that Friday Prayers can only be offered in congregation leads to the other main argument, and perhaps the fiercest one, against this practice. Men and women are segregated in congregational prayers and girls usually sit behind the boys. This setting is said to be discriminatory towards women and opponents argue that it is against social values of gender equality taught at school.

This is yet another example of self righteous secularists looking at Islamic practices from their myopic worldview and passing judgment. They are out to rescue the ‘poor Muslim woman’; whether she asked for it or not. Did any of these girls complain to them about being subjugated at school? Did it not occur to them that these girls voluntarily pray in this setting? Little do they realize that by making such petty arguments they are actually hurting Muslim girls that want to pray. They also assume that Muslim girls would want to intermingle with the opposite sex during prayers; I can tell you with complete confidence that suggestion would cause them nothing but discomfort. Muslim girls are not obsessed with superficial displays of feminism.

Segregation during prayers is something done simply for the purposes of modesty. This is something the worshippers do themselves with knowledge of how prayers are normally conducted; not something forced on by the school. Islamic prayers involve a series of physical movements (e.g. bowing and prostrating) performed in unison and it would be considered immodest for men and women to perform these actions side by side.

Mosques often have separate prayer halls for women that are sometimes above the men’s prayer hall; would one conclude that women are superior to men just because they pray above them? If this in fact is such a big deal, then women could also pray alongside the men’s rows provided there is a barrier between them. Remember, segregation doesn’t equal discrimination. If that were the case then complaints should also be launched for having segregated gym classes and bathrooms at school.

One contention that I would have never expected to see raised was the alleged stigmatization of menstruating girls. This again is another example of extreme secularists and feminists viewing Islam from their lens of superficiality. Actually, Muslim men often complain about how menstruating women are relieved from the obligation of prayer and fasting while they have to perform these duties regardless. As Shahina Siddiqui pointed out, this is exemption is meant to be a compassionate accommodation and is something appreciated by Muslim women; especially those with PMS issues.  It is not tied to the gender of the worshiper; rather it is tied to fulfillment of some pre-conditons of the ritual prayer (Salah) which apply to both men and women.

People fail to see that these ‘third class’ menstruating girls attended the prayer sessions despite it not being a religious requirement upon them. It demonstrates that they feel a part of the community and see benefit in attending the sermon. No one knows who’s menstruating and who’s not and thus no one can tell anyone not to pray; these girls do this out of their own will inline with religious requirements. In fact, many menstruating girls pray regardless of their period and its quite probable that this happens in this particular congregation too. If these girls were in fact subject to the subjugation and mistreatment being claimed, why would they even attend prayers? There is more than meets the eye.

If the school board bows down to public pressure and bans theses prayers, then know that Muslim kids serious about their religion will continue to pray. However, instead of the cafeteria they might resort to secretly praying under a staircase, a storage closet, out in the parking lot or even the bathroom. Accommodating prayers for students means they don’t have to make the difficult choice between faith and education. Having attended a school which did accommodate my prayer requests, I know what a blessing that is.

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