Prayer, Menstruation, and the Toronto District School Board

The girls sitting at the back during Friday prayers are menstruating and not allowed to sit with everyone else. John Goddard/Toronto Star. Click on this photo to go to the Star's article.

There are days when, I swear to God, I am all set to enroll under the banner of Richard Dawkins and anathematize all religions and those who subscribe to them.  I take a lot of criticism from my fellow atheists, including my fellow Brainstormers, for arguing that science and religion are compatible.  I still think that, but increasingly I cannot for the life of me see why any decent human being would want to be religious, and increasingly I think one should be ashamed to be religious.

On medical grounds—I have blood-pressure issues already—I won’t go into the views of the crop running for the Republican nomination for the 2012 presidential race.  Nor here will I pick up in detail on the news coming out of Ireland.  A new report, the Cloyne Report, says that the Vatican was “entirely unhelpful” when it came to enforcing moral and legal practices by priests towards vulnerable children.  The bishop of the diocese, John Magee—former private secretary to no less than three popes—flagrantly ignored solid evidence that children were being abused, and he himself has admitted to an “inappropriate relationship” with a young man.

Now, however, I want to turn to the Muslims, specifically in the city of Toronto, in Ontario, Canada. That country has a huge number of immigrants, formerly mainly from Europe (I was one in 1962), but now increasingly from other parts of the world.  It is a tolerant country that stresses “multiculturalism” rather than “melting pot,” the predominant philosophy south of its border.  I am not saying that this is better—there are times frankly when Canada could use a bit more nation-binding and unity—but it is a philosophy adopted because people think it morally right.  You invite or allow people into your country and you expect them to abide by the basic rules.  But at the same time you do not want to squeeze out all that the newcomers hold dear and important.  Live and let live.

The trouble begins when you have to draw lines.  No one in Canada is going to support female circumcision, no matter how important an immigrant family may think it to be.  No one in Canada is going to stop someone being a vegetarian, if their customs demand such a diet.  But what about the borderline examples?  There has been a huge amount of debate about whether Sikhs who join the Mounties (the RCMP) should be allowed to go on wearing turbans or if they must conform and put on the Smokey the Bear hats that is the normal garb.  (I am glad to say that the decision was to allow the turban.)

Now the multiculturalism issue has blown up in Toronto.  Ontario has two state-supported school systems, secular and Catholic.  This goes back to Confederation, the founding of the country.  I won’t now raise the rights and wrongs of this system—although no prizes for guessing where I stand—but for obvious reasons, what follows is a secular school issue and not a Catholic school issue.

There are a lot of Muslim kids in the (secular) public schools.  Their religion puts on them the obligation to say prayers several times during the day, especially Fridays.  You cannot just save it all up for the evening.  So where are they going to say their prayers?  The obvious answer is in an assembly room or some such place, between classes or over the lunch break.  This in itself might make you a bit tense, but as I say, live and let live. I don’t think you would want to allow religious leaders to come in and run things, but if the kids want to do it, why not?  It is much the same as the kids getting together to play a pickup game of basketball.  I don’t want to pray or play basketball, but that’s just me.

But, get this.  It turns out that girls who are menstruating are not allowed to articipate in the prayers.  They must sit at the back and watch.  This is not a social demand.  This is a religious demand.

It is also absolutely outrageous.  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.

As it happens, the practice is probably illegal, because there are all sorts of laws in Canada about gender equity.  But the point is not about legality or illegality.  It is not illegal to poop on your living room carpet, but decent people don’t do this.  And decent people, responsible for the welfare of children, don’t allow prejudice against girls with their periods.  They don’t, they really don’t.

And arguing that allowing the practice ensures that kids don’t go to the mosque and then skip school after the prayers is no answer.  If the prayers are so important, then the Muslim community should provide buses and monitoring.

Ultimately though, the wimps on the Toronto District School Board are not the villains, nor really are the craven-hearted politicians who are desperately afraid of losing the immigrant vote.  It is religion and religion alone that is at fault.

As I say, I take a lot of flak for arguing that science in itself does not refute all religious beliefs. I also think that it is politically stupid to argue otherwise in a
country like America where so many people are religious.  But that is not an excuse for religion.  Of course there have been, and still are, many people who do good and noble things because of religion.  Read and weep about the young people in the
White Rose group in Munich during the war who went to their deaths because, in
the name of their Lord, they opposed Hitler publicly.  But there is such a dark side to religion.  Why do people not see this?

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