Allah in the Cafeteria—David Frum
What does it take for a school to endorse a practice that many consider to be sexually discriminating? Natasha Fatah reports in Toronto Life about a public school which has allowed its cafeteria space to be used for conservative Muslim prayers. During prayer sessions in this public school, girls are required to sit behind boys. Girls who are menstruating are banned from participating altogether.
It is hard to imagine that school administrators would agree to this arrangement if demanded by any other religious community.
Valley Park Middle School has a majority Muslim student population and many of the students needed to leave the school for Friday prayers. This created logistical challenges:
The majority of the students at Valley Park—more than 800 kids—are Muslims. Until 2008, several hundred of the students would leave school every Friday to attend midday prayers at the mosque. The prayer itself took only 15 to 20 minutes, but the kids wouldn’t return to school for two or three hours, if they bothered to at all. Some simply headed to a shopping mall or home to play video games. The school’s administration needed a solution.
Some of the commentators on the Toronto Life site note that it is peculiar that truancy laws weren't enforced in this situation. School administrators could have done that in a way which did not compromise how the school's facilities were being used.
One couple with students at the school took it upon themselves to equip the school to better handle the Islamic needs of its students, and made arrangements to have one of the school rooms function as a prayer room:
In 2008, the [couple] realized they could expand the congregational prayer program and perhaps solve the Friday exodus problem. They approached Nickolas Stefanoff, the school’s principal, and requested that a prayer session be held every Friday in the cafeteria from November to March—the months in the Islamic calendar when prayer coincides with class time. All the school had to do was provide the space and ask the parents of participating students to sign a consent form. The Baigs, the mosque and the Muslim community would take care of the rest. The school agreed.
A group of parent volunteers, all women, started to come to the school after lunch, clear the cafeteria and roll carpets out on the floor. Then three to four hundred students shuffle in. The prayers are conducted entirely in Arabic, which is the custom in just about every mosque in every corner of the world. Once the prayers are completed, the students return to class, missing only a fraction of the lesson time that they would have if they went to the mosque.
Journalist Natasha Fatah asked the activist couple:
why the Valley Park girls must sit behind the boys, Ali said that it isn’t something they actively enforce at the school: the students are merely following what they learn at the mosque. I asked what would happen if one of the female students demanded to sit in the front, and Shamiza replied that none has. I pushed the point: what if, one day, one girl wants to sit in the front? Shamiza said she would explain to the girl that that’s not the way it’s done in Islam. The boys must be in the front, and girls belong in the back. Ali said the girls choose to sit in the back because they’re concerned about a “biological scenario.” When I asked for clarification, he explained that a girl praying in the front might “disrupt the prayers” because the boys would be distracted.
The school becomes, in effect, a mosque.