Canada: Canadian Council of Muslim Women statement regarding Muslim congregational prayer services at Ontario’s public schools
The Issue: The practice of some public schools in Ontario to allow Muslim Friday congregational prayers during school hours and within the school’s space for students has created controversy and aroused strong feelings amongst other faith groups. We appreciate the non- Catholic Toronto School District Board’s effort to implement “freedom of religion” by accommodating the religious needs of their Muslim students. However the provision of school space, such as the cafeteria at Valley Park Middle School raises a number of questions which require careful consideration.
The Director of Education of TDSB, Chris Spence, made a statement, July 8/2011, explaining their decision. He states that “freedom of religion” has led to this accommodation. He continues, “The division of the sexes which occurs during the service is part of the Islamic faith. Students who participate in the prayer services do so voluntarily and with parental permission, and no one is obligated to participate.”
There are issues with this statement which we will address later.
Canadian Council of Muslim Women’s Values:
CCMW is an organization of believing Muslim women whose values are equality, equity and empowerment of women and girls. We believe these to be the values enshrined in our faith and in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We believe that these should govern all aspects of our lives, within our families, in laws, and in public spaces and institutions.
These beliefs include the celebration of diversity and pluralism within Muslim communities and in our Canadian society.
Ministry of Education & the Toronto District Board of Education:
Both the Ontario Ministry of Education and the Toronto District Board of Education appear not to have clearly articulated principles and values, except to state they uphold the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
However, there are some documents such as the 1994 guide “Education about Religion in Ontario Public Schools” which states that boards cannot provide indoctrinational religious education, and must not give priority to any particular faith.
This obviously does not take into account that Ontario has a separate school board for Catholics.
Another document, “Finding Common Ground: Character Development Initiative” states that it reinforces the tenets of Human Rights, Constitutional rights, and federal and provincial legislation.
We presume these statements include the Charter’s over-riding value of equality, specifically gender equality.
Some considerations for this decision:
This is a complicated issue which raises many questions.
The role of religion in schools; the role of the mosque within the school; the lack of understanding of the diversity of interpretations within a given faith; the Charter rights of freedom of religion and gender equality; and what is being conveyed to all the students at this school.
CCMW position is that the practice of religious freedom goes hand in hand with gender equality. This is integral to the fabric of being Canadian and Muslim. This is what we advocate for within our Muslim communities, as well as in mainstream society.
As to allowing religious services or teachings within a school setting, we thought this had been clarified in Ontario many years ago. The initial major role of religion – Christianity- was removed to accommodate other faiths, but this did not mean other faiths would replace Christian teachings either.
The gesture of accommodation is appreciated but is this in contradiction to the policies of the Ministry of Education that religion per se cannot be part of the school programs. We understand that “general” teachings of all religions can be part of a school course.
How is the school explaining to their students – Muslims and non-Muslims – the barrier of upturned cafeteria tables to separate girls from boys; the focus on menstruating girls; and the lack of oversight of the school on the service itself?
Are other faith groups also being accommodated in the schools? Are the services for Native students, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and Christians?
As Canadian Muslims we can see the value of a universal space set aside for “quiet time or meditation or prayers” for anyone who needs this.
In this climate of anti-Muslim sentiments, such accommodations can backfire and end up causing more ill-will against Muslims because we are seen as demanding “special treatment.”
The Director of Education of TDSB, in his media release, makes some comments which are questionable.
He addresses accommodation as necessary for the Charter right of religious freedom, but this is only partially accurate. There are other competing rights and policies regarding equality and the Canadian value of keeping religion out of the school programs. This is part of the acknowledgement that there are diverse interpretations of faith and no one faith should supersede within the school system.
Another concern he does not address is the role and responsibility of the education system for the students in their schools, and the use of public space.
His acceptance that the separation of sexes is part of the Islamic faith is based on the commonly held traditional interpretation. What he does not know is that there are internal discussions amongst Muslims regarding the position of women in Islamic centres and mosques.
As the school cafeteria is not a mosque, he has the responsibility of ensuring that the use of public space in schools is within the mandate and hopefully the control of the school board. Surely the school board cannot relinquish its values and principles or its accountability for what occurs in their spaces.
CCMW appreciates the intent behind this action but questions whether it is appropriate for the education system to include religious practices without a great deal more thought as to where this may lead to.
Other faith groups have the same rights and what exactly happens to the school system if students are being divided by faith alone, without being taught the shared beliefs common to all religions.
This targeting of Muslims is leading to increased racism and anti-Muslim feelings – not a helpful situation for us.
July 21, 2011.