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Allah in the Cafeteria: Inside the school prayer scandal at Valley Park Middle School

When the principal at Valley Park Middle School allowed 400 Muslim students to pray in the lunchroom, he thought he was being progressive. What he got was a scandal—over the preaching of conservative Islam and the separation of girls from boys—that’s testing the TDSB’s policy of religious accomodation

Allah in the Cafeteria

(Image: John Goddard)

Valley Park Middle School, at Don Mills and Overlea, is much like any other TDSB facility in the inner suburbs—an unremarkable rectangle of grey, concrete blocks, plus 11 portables in the back field. It’s also one of Canada’s largest and most ethnically diverse middle schools, with approximately 1,200 students in grades 6 to 8, whose native languages include Urdu, Pashto, Dari, Bengali and Punjabi. The neighbouring streets consist mostly of strip malls and huge apartment complexes that accommodate many of the Muslim immigrants from South Asia who arrived in Toronto in large numbers in the 1990s.

A kilometre and a half away, amid the fast-food chains and electronics repair shops, is the neighbourhood’s mosque—the Darus Salaam. If you were walking by it in a hurry, you might not even realize it’s a mosque. There’s no minaret, nothing distinctive about the building; it’s just another non­descript box that disappears into the industrial landscape. The mosque is orthodox Sunni and adheres to a strict, conservative interpretation of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. It is also a madrassa—a religious place of learning—for many of the children who attend Valley Park.

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.

According to TDSB policy, schools are expected to accommodate students and families who make special requests for their religion, which includes allowing time away from class and providing an appropriate location in the school for prayer. Just how exactly to achieve that accommodation is left open to a great deal of interpretation. In the case of Valley Park, one couple, Ali and Shamiza Baig, took control of the situation.

The Baigs were married in Hyderabad, India, in 1986. They moved to Canada a year later and eventually had three children—two sons and a daughter. Ali is 52 years old and owns an electrical business, and Shamiza, who is 50, runs a home daycare. They are both highly devout Muslims and attend prayer at Darus Salaam. They are also devoted parents and extremely proud of their children. One son has graduated from U of T, the second is studying there now, and their daughter is headed there, too.

Eleven years ago, when Shamiza’s eldest son was still a student at Valley Park, she began to organize a series of prayers at the school during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset. With the school’s consent, a few hundred students participated in the congregational prayers once a week.

Canada’s education system is very Christian, one of the Muslim parents says, and it’s up to us to challenge it

In 2008, the Baigs 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.

The prayer sessions occurred without scrutiny until last July, when the Toronto Sun ran a series of stories about Valley Park. The newspaper was especially exercised about the fact that an imam from Darus Salaam was leading the prayers in the school’s cafeteria, and that the girls were being made to sit behind the boys.

Political blogs picked up the Sun story and gave it momentum on Twitter, dubbing the service the “mosqueteria.” The controversy grew more intense when the Toronto Star printed a photo of the prayer session and the Star columnist Heather Mallick criticized the school for allowing girls to be treated as inferior.

Most of the journalists emphasized one detail that secular Canadians found particularly objectionable: any girl who was menstruating couldn’t participate in the prayers, and could only observe from the back row. Orthodox Muslims, like members of a number of other faiths, consider menstruating females impure for religious functions.