On Segregated Prayers in Public Schools

Introduction

I recently read some articles and blog entries about gender-segregated Islamic prayers in some Canadian public schools, specifically in Ontario.  In Charter trumps Education Act over prayers, Terry Davidson and the people he quotes mention two issues (secular education and gender equality) which I think are important to discuss here.[1]

Secular Education

An essential characteristic of public schools is that they should be secular, should be schools that neither endorse a particular view on religion nor discriminate against students with a particular view on religion.  These prayers are being described by some as an example of religious freedom (i.e. students being allowed to practice their religious beliefs), but there are some aspects of the situation which make me question this assessment.

If the students were to start a Muslim Club at the school, I think that would definitely be within their rights.  (My former high school had a Christian Club, and I’ve heard that there is now also a Muslim Club.)  If students said that they wanted to pray and wanted to be able to come late to a certain class on Fridays, I think that would be within their rights as well.  If they wanted to go home early on Fridays to go the mosque, that would be within their rights as well.  (I remember that when I was in elementary school some of my fellow students from Catholic families would leave school early on certain days to go to CCD — Confraternity of Christian Doctrine — classes.)  These last two suggestions, of course, would require the students to make up any work they missed.  There are some people suggesting that the prayers in public schools are justified because leaving school early would mean that students would miss class and/or because some students didn’t return to school when they were allowed to leave school for Friday prayers.  The reason I don’t agree with this argument is because students miss class for all kinds of activities, including competitions, events, extra classes, and so on.  If students can miss class for these reasons and still be expected to make up the work, I don’t see why the same cannot be done for a religious activity.  Students not returning to school should be considered irresponsible and should be expected to make up the work; the school should not give up on secularism but expect responsibility and hard work.  Ultimately, it is not the job of the school to help parents preach religion to their children, but to give them an education in secular subjects.

So, if I would support students’ right to have a Muslim Club, or to leave school to pray, or to obtain permission to come late to class in order to pray, why do I object to this on the grounds of secularism?  The presence of an imam is, for me, what makes this situation cross a line.  This is not just an example of students wanting to pray and asking to be excused from class for a little while to do so.  This can be considered, in my view, religious instruction.  This is an example of giving a religious leader a time and place to preach to students in a public school, during the school day.

A point that is often ignored, but is important to note, is that including religion in school is not just a wrong done against members of other faiths, but also a wrong done against members of the same faith, who find that another person’s denomination or interpretation is being favored over their own.  In Davidson’s article (mentioned above) there are quotes from Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress.

“The TDSB [Toronto District School Board], by allowing the propagation of religion, is going against the education act,” Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, said on Friday. “(The act) says no religion can be propagated in the public school system.”

And the separating of boys and girls during the prayer sessions?

The TDSB has taken one of the more radical and patriarchal forms of Islam, run with it, and hasn’t bothered to question it, Fatah said.

“How did the TDSB pick the worst form of gender separation and say this is Islam?” Fatah asked. “The TDSB is guilty of importing a version of Islam that is from…Islamic fascists.”[2]

By allowing these prayers, the school district is favoring one form of Islam.  It is favoring a form of Islam that makes girls sit in the back during prayer.  It’s taking the views of some Muslims and giving a religious leader official time during the school day to teach that version of Islam to the children of Muslim parents.

It is also important, extremely important, to consider the views of the students.  I’m not one to automatically dismiss the views of a person just because that person is under the age of eighteen; I don’t like it when adults assume that children are ignorant.  So, just because these students are under eighteen does not mean that I think they have no views on religion and it certainly does not mean that their views on religion are irrelevant.  At the same time, it is dishonest to pretend that a person who is still a minor under the legal guardianship of others is not going to be influenced, or even forced, by adults to pretend to believe what the minor does not really believe.  So, while I am willing to concede (and readily so) that there are probably students in the school who really do agree with their parents’ religious faith, there are probably also those who disagree, but do not feel that they can give voice to their objections.  These prayer sessions — again, headed by an imam — are a way for parents to use school time to force their kids to follow a certain religion and a way for a religious leader to have the chance to monitor which of the Muslim students come to the prayer and which ones don’t.  When we talk about religious freedom for students, let us remember that this religious freedom extends not just to students who agree with their parents’ religious views but also to students who disagree with them.

Aside:  It’s Possible for Two People Who Disagree to Both Be Wrong

As a brief preemptive response to likely criticism, I want to add here that I know there are those who suspect ulterior motives on the part of those who oppose the prayers, and there are those who do try to mask their discriminatory views with fake concern for equality.  There is an accusation by Ellie Kirzner against the groups Canadian Hindu Advocacy and Jewish Defense League.  She writes that their opposition to these prayers is motivated by discriminatory views against Muslims.[3]  Based on the quotes in the article, I’m inclined to agree that Ron Banerjee, the person quoted, is advocating bigotry.  However, that does not mean that the prayers are right.  Both the people who want discriminate against Muslims and the particular Muslims who want to discriminate are wrong.

Gender Equality

Gender segregation is a toxic concept that contaminates the ideas of freedom and equality that are essential to building a better world.  The aspect of these prayers that has rightfully gained a lot of attention is the fact that girls have to pray in the back and girls who are menstruating sit separately, not praying.  This is bigotry, and it should not be allowed in public schools.  It is infuriating that religion is considered an acceptable reason to disregard equality; certain religious people have actually convinced others that letting their religion discriminate in a public school is somehow an example of equality.

Heather Mallick wrote an article about how embarrassing it must be for the girls to be singled out when they are menstruating and comments that gender equality would require letting girls pray alongside the boys, not behind them.[4]  She makes a good point, and it bothers me that people who advocate taking the views and feelings of a religious group into consideration don’t stop to consider the views and feelings of girls who are being told that they are second-class, and who feel pressured to follow discriminatory rules that they do not believe in.

One argument that seems to come up whenever there is an issue about unequal treatment of women is the argument that it’s alright for women to be treated unequally, because that unequal treatment protects them.  One insulting argument of this type was made by Steve Smith (in the comments section one of Professor Coyne’s blog posts at Why Evolution is True).  He writes that he retracted his criticism on the gender segregation in Islamic prayer because a Muslim woman told him that a practical reason for women praying behind men is that, otherwise, men would be distracted by the view of women from behind.[5]  This kind of attitude is one that places the responsibilities for men’s actions on women; it suggests that women self-segregating is a way to protect themselves from mistreatment from men, instead of demanding that men should be considered responsible for their own actions and that women shouldn’t be mistreated.  I’ve heard women make this argument about other gender equality issues, and while I understand the desire to take a practical protective step within a discriminatory system, ultimately it is the system itself that is wrong.

Michael Ruse, who is often criticized by fellow atheists for arguing for the compatibility of science and religion, nonetheless does realize that “there is such a dark side to religion”.  He writes, “Let me spell it out.  Girls with their periods are not sinful.  They are not sick.  They are not weak.  That anyone would think otherwise in this day and age boggles the mind.  It boggles the mind even more that respectable members of the Toronto District School Board should think this treatment of females is something that should be tolerated on school grounds, at any time.”  He adds, for good measure, that “decent people, responsible for the welfare of children, don’t allow prejudice against girls with their periods.  They don’t, they really don’t”.[6]  I agree.  They don’t, they really don’t.  Anyone who believes that excluding girls who are menstruating (or segregating girls in general) is a good practice has lost all sense of decency, if they had it in the first place.

Eric MacDonald has written an adamant rant, insisting (in short) that enough is enough already.  In response to Tarek Fatah’s comments (quoted above) he writes, “And this is simply why religion does not belong in public space, because there is no way of establishing what is and what is not an aspect or teaching or practice of any particular religion”.  About gender segregation and discrimination, he writes, “The time is coming when we are going to have to take the bull by the horns and tell religions that they simply must live up to the understanding of equality that is written into the laws of the land”.[7]  His frustration is understandable, given the frequency with which religious freedom is cited to promote bigotry.  Equality matters and gender equality should not be ignored or violated in the name of religion, especially not in public schools.

Fatima Cader writes that the Friday prayers made her a Muslim feminist and were actually a step in the right direction.  Because congregational prayers on Fridays are considered mandatory for boys and optional for girls, the boys would get permission to leave school to go to the prayers, but the girls would not.  Both parents and teachers were not interested in letting girls go to the prayers, but there were girls who wanted to pray and would have to do so secretly in the school.  Then, the school decided to allow students to pray on site during Ramadan, which meant that both boys and girls could participate.

To me, it seems that the school was wrong in the first place by not allowing girls to go to the Friday prayers, and the religion is wrong for having different rules for prayer for boys and girls.  If the religion is wrong for having different rules for boys and girls, the remedy is not to bring the religion and its segregation into the school, but to challenge and change the rules of the religion.  Discriminatory rules in Islam should not cause the school to discriminate accordingly; the school should have made it its policy to allow girls who asked to attend Friday prayers as well.

While the prayers may be considered a step forward in Islam by some, others could point out that it is still far from equal — and compared to the fact that girls are allowed (I presume) to sit in the front row during classes, it’s a step backward for the school.  At the end of her article, Cader makes my point for me.  She writes, “I wonder now how I and the school might have grown had we all along had the chance to share openly in a process, without fear or paranoia, whereby students could decide for themselves how their prayers should be arranged. God knows, teenagers hate being told what to do. Trust that Muslim women hate it no less.”[8]  I’d ask her to consider that while she might think these prayers an improvement, and may want to change the system from within, another female Muslim student might prefer to have permission from the school to pray by herself or with other friends who do not support segregation, so that she doesn’t have to sit in the back.  Having these prayers available as the Islamic prayer option for students, instead of a policy where students can “decide for themselves how their prayers should be arranged” is the problem, and it’s why these prayers are not an example of equality for Muslims or for women.

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Acknowledgement

I first read about this article in an entry at Ophelia Benson’s Notes and Comments Blog at Butterflies and Wheels.[9]

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Edits

1. One fantastic article that I inadvertently did not include in the original entry is Robyn Urback’s Girls should not be segregated on public school property.  (URL:  http://oncampus.macleans.ca/education/2011/07/11/girls-should-not-be-segregated-on-public-school-property/)

2. There is now a petition asking for the prayers to be desegregated.  (URL:  http://www.change.org/petitions/dont-segregate-menstruating-girls-in-public-schools)  To give credit, I found the petition via Pharyngula.  (URL:  http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/07/we_need_a_petition_to_urge_a_s.php)

3. I originally forgot to include a link to the article mentioned in the short aside.  It has now been added.


References

[1] Davidson, Terry.  Charter trumps Education Act over prayers.  Posted on 8 July 2011 in Toronto Sun.  Retrieved on 23 July 2011 from http://www.torontosun.com/2011/07/08/charter-trumps-education-act-over-prayers.

[2] Same as #1

[3] Kirzner, Ellie.  Ellie Kirzner on Muslim school prayer.  Posted in the week of 14-21 July 2011 in Vol 30 No 26 of Now Toronto.  Retrieved on 24 July 2011 from http://www.nowtoronto.com/news/story.cfm?content=181795.

[4] Mallick, Heather.  Time for someone to speak up for shy young girls.  Posted on 10 July 2011 at The Toronto Star.  Retrieved 23 July 2011 from http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/1022295–mallick-time-for-someone-to-speak-up-for-shy-young-girls.

[5] Smith, Steve.  Comment #10.  Posted on 16 July 2011 at 7:33 am in the comment section of Jerry Coyne’s Muslim prayer, misogyny, and Ruse’s ambitendencies.  Retrieved on 23 July 2011 from http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/07/16/muslim-prayer-and-ruses-ambitendencies/#comment-119485.

[6] Ruse, Michael.  Prayer, Menstruation, and the Toronto District School Board.  Posted on 15 July 2011 at The Brainstorm Blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved on 24 July 2011 from http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/menstruating-girls-and-the-toronto-district-school-board/37370.

[7] MacDonald, Eric.  On the Side of the Angels.  Posted on 16 July 2011 at Choice in Dying.  Retrieved on 24 July 2011 from http://choiceindying.com/2011/07/16/on-the-side-of-the-angels/.

[8] Cader, Fathima.  My school prayer:  How my Friday ritual made me a Muslim feminist.  Posted in the week of 14-21 July 2011 in Vol 30 No 26 of Now Toronto.  Retrieved on 24 July 2011 from http://www.nowtoronto.com/news/story.cfm?content=181789.

[9] Benson, Ophelia.  Filthy Girls.  Posted on 14 July 2011 at The Notes and Comments Blog at Butterflies and Wheels.  Retrieved on 24 July 2011 from http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2011/filthy-girls/.

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