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

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

(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.

Valley Park Middle School
Nickolas Stefanoff, the principal of Valley Park, provides the school’s cafeteria to Muslim students who want to pray, but takes no responsibility for how a group of parents runs the sessions. (Image: Lee Towndrow)

A few moderate Muslim activists, such as Farzana Hassan, the former president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, began to ask why a public institution was hosting a religious prayer service in the first place. Other MCC members asked why the school wasn’t supervising what the imam was preaching to the students. Hassan claimed that the Sunni interpretation of Islam alienates the children of other Muslim sects.
The furor over the cafeteria prayers was all the louder because it was perceived as a slippery slope, part of a pattern of controversial accommodations of Muslim culture and religion in Canada. Gender segregation may happen in mosques in this country, but the idea that it was happening—and going unchallenged—in a place of education appeared to be a violation of the Education Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. At Valley Park, the school’s administration had entered into a simple deal with Muslim parents and students. It never anticipated an explosive reaction.

I grew up in a progressive, moderate Muslim home. I was born in Karachi but spent most of my childhood in Saudi Arabia, where the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam was enforced. My father is Sunni and my mother a Shia, and they brought my sister and me up with an appreciation for our religious identity as well as a respect for secular principles. We moved to Canada in 1987, and over the past 10 years I have watched with mounting concern the rise of religious fundamentalism in the country that is now my home. The congregational prayer sessions at Valley Park seemed to be another expression of that conservative faith.

When I phoned Nickolas Stefanoff and asked him how he was dealing with the complaints about the prayer service, he responded defensively. He instructed me to learn something about Islam before I start asking questions. When I told him that I was a Muslim, he backed down, but remained resolute that the school was doing nothing wrong. I asked if I could attend one of the prayer services, and he said yes.

On the mild December Friday that I drove to Valley Park, I saw mothers in niqabs walking their children to school. Outside Stefanoff’s office were posters announcing the upcoming holiday season concert. The school’s Christmas tree was decorated with snowmen and snowflakes—nothing overtly religious. Stefanoff is 61 years old. He’s a tall man with an expressive face. His own family is Eastern Orthodox, and he recalls how, when he was a boy, women had to sit apart from the men during church services and cover their heads. They are no longer required to do so, and he offers this as an example of how religious traditions can evolve. He predicts the Muslim community at Don Mills and Overlea will evolve one day, too.

Just after the lunch hour, Stefanoff escorted me to the school’s cafeteria to see the prayer service. Valley Park’s custodians were moving the tables and benches to make room for the students to pray on the floor. One by one, six female parent volunteers came in. The one woman who wasn’t already wearing a hijab quickly pulled a scarf out of her purse and wrapped her head as she got closer to the stage. I sat down beside a volunteer with a pleasant smile and an open face. Her name was Sumaira Tariq, and she has a son in Grade 6 at Valley Park. Her other son graduated last year and now attends Marc Garneau, the neighbouring high school. She told me that she believes Friday prayer is not a matter of choice, but a duty. She said that the first question God will ask Muslims when they die is whether or not they prayed, and the most important day of the week is Friday, which is why it’s so important for her sons to fulfill this responsibility to Him. Tariq also has a daughter who is a student at Marc Garneau, and she is insistent that, in Islam, boys and girls must not be permitted to stand together during prayers. “This is the teaching of Islam—and it must not be questioned,” she said.

Shamiza Baig, the woman who helped start the prayer sessions at Valley Park, entered the room with a burst of energy and excitement. She’s short, plump and boisterous, with glasses tightly fastened by the hijab wrapped around her head. She arrived just when the students began to enter the cafeteria. Boys and girls entered through separate doors—boys from the front, near the stage, girls through the back.

Several of the girls were in long black robes. But many wore jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts. All wore a hijab except for one tiny girl in a purple long-sleeved T-shirt and black jeans with bedazzled back pockets. There was a bit of panic among the parent volunteers because her curly black hair was exposed. They scrambled to find her an extra scarf. The girl herself had a laissez-faire attitude to the whole thing, and when she wandered over to the front area where the boys pray, two parent volunteers ordered her to go to the back of the room with the other girls. Finally a scarf was given to her, and she found her place with the other girls.

The children removed their shoes and kneeled on the carpets in neat rows. Students at the school wear ID tags around their necks but tuck them into their shirts during prayer. Baig ran the prayer like a tight military operation, issuing orders for students to get organized and finish their sunnahs—a specific series of prayers to be recited before the formal sermon begins. She asked a group of girls who were sitting on benches to immediately get on the floor and join the other girls.

The sermon commenced and the parent volunteers stood at strategic spots around the room to catch any misbehaviour. They recited the same prayer I’ve heard thousands of times over my lifetime. There is only one God, and Muhammad is his prophet. I watched as the students bowed and kneeled and looked side to side—the ritual movements of Muslim prayers performed all over the world.

After the prayers ended, the cafeteria erupted into chaos. Girls gossiped and screamed, boys rough-housed, and no one seemed in a hurry to get back to class. It was a little like Lord of the Flies. I remembered something Stefanoff told me: “They are kids before they are Muslims.”

Shamiza and Ali Baig pushed for the prayer session so kids wouldn’t have to leave school for the nearby mosque every Friday. (Image: Lee Towndrow)

Stefanoff was dumbfounded by the controversy over the prayers when it began last summer. He assured me that the school isn’t teaching religion and no students are pressured to attend. The school is simply providing the space, and the administration doesn’t have anything to do with the prayer itself. He blames the controversy on a little-known organization called Canadian Hindu Advocacy, and the group’s director, Ron Banerjee.

Banerjee is a lanky 43-year-old with a pronounced lisp and a nervous energy. He has been the full-time director of the organization for its three-year existence and claims to have 930 paying members. He describes himself as a religious moderate but a political conservative. He backed Stephen Harper and Rob Ford during their campaigns, and he frequently issues statements condemning government policies, in Canada and India, that supposedly show favouritism toward Muslims.

Banerjee claims he started to receive emails in early 2011 from half a dozen parents of Hindu students at Valley Park who had complaints about the school prayers. (He said he couldn’t show me the emails—they’d been deleted.) The parents said they didn’t like the special accommodations the school was making for the Muslim students, in part because it was disruptive to the whole school. They said their own kids’ education was being compromised every Friday. The hundreds of students returning late to classes meant that teachers spent too much class time repeating lessons. One parent claimed that many children couldn’t settle down once they returned to class, and it was difficult to carry out the lessons. Friday afternoons were basically a write-off for every student—Muslim or non-Muslim.

Banerjee claims the TDSB bends over backwards to accommodate Muslims above all other groups, and he has been criticized as an Islamophobe for saying so. When I asked him if he considers himself Islamophobic, he became annoyed but didn’t deny it. (There’s enough evidence of his contempt for Muslims in a video posted in 2010 on the CHA website. “In its entire history,” he says, “the Islamic civilization has invented and contributed less to human advancement than a pack of donkeys.”)

Banerjee encouraged the parents to ask Stefanoff to stop the prayers, but he doesn’t know if any of them followed through. After the Sun story appeared, he sent an email to the TDSB expressing his concerns about the prayers. A month later, he received a reply from the TDSB stating that the prayers were not inappropriate and reiterating the board’s policy of religious accommodation.

Banerjee organized a coalition that included members of the Jewish Defense League and the Christian Heritage Party, and scheduled three protests at the TDSB head office at Yonge and Sheppard. Several hundred people participated in the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. Banerjee arranged for a series of people to deliver speeches opposing the board’s accommodation policy at the protests. (The only Muslim to speak was the journalist and women’s rights activist Raheel Raza. She was heckled by a group of young Muslim men and women, who criticized her for betraying her own religion.)

Jim Spyropoulos, the superintendent of the TDSB’s Equitable and Inclusive Schools department, kept a wary eye on the protests. Spyropoulos is a former high school principal, and he took the equity job in 2010, when it was created. He told me that the school was faced with a difficult decision about using the cafeteria for prayers. He says most of the time, when requests for prayer services arise at other schools, solutions are found for individual students. According to Spyropoulos, these types of prayers—congregational and individual—are being accommodated at hundreds of schools within the TDSB, though usually in small, multi-faith prayer rooms. The board’s policy does not distinguish between individual requests and group requests—and in the case of Valley Park it was the responsibility of the school to accommodate a large group. The cafeteria was the only practical solution.

Both Spyropoulos and Stefanoff insist that not one parent or student at Valley Park has come to them to complain. By making the cafeteria available for prayer, the school is in compliance with the board policy, which is based on the human rights codes for Ontario and Canada. “To me there is no issue here,” Stefanoff says.

The TDSB made one concession to the protesters, when it agreed that it was inappropriate for an imam from Darus Salaam to lead the prayer in the school. The school asked that the prayer session be led instead by senior students from Marc Garneau. The volunteer Muslim parents vet the students for religious training. Stefanoff feels better about this, he says, because they are former Valley Park students and he knows they are “good kids.”

Some of the prayer sessions’ critics, including Farzana Hassan and Raheel Raza, claim they have no problem with Islam. Rather, they’re concerned that the school is allowing students to be indoctrinated with a conservative Sunni ideology. Stefanoff waves off that concern, too, and says he trusts his community and the volunteers and doesn’t believe anything inappropriate is happening.

To Banerjee, it isn’t good enough for the principal to say that all they do is provide the space and that they aren’t teaching religion—the school cannot take a hands-on, hands-off approach. If the school is allowing gender segregation during the prayer sessions, it’s a tacit endorsement of that practice. For Banerjee and for many others, it’s an endorsement of conservative Islam.

Ron Banerjee, the leader of a Hindu group, organized protests, claiming the school has endorsed the teachings of conservative Islam. (Image: Lee Towndrow)

On New Year’s Day, I met Ali and Shamiza Baig at a Tim Hortons in one of the many strip malls in their neighbourhood. Ali did most of the talking. He told me that he has friends at every mosque in the city, and that they are working together to support the school prayer sessions. He said that Canada’s education system is very Christian and nobody challenges it.

Ali Baig, like Stefanoff, blames the debate over the prayer sessions on a small group of people. He wonders if the controversy erupted when it did because of the then-ongoing provincial election—was someone trying to embarrass the Liberals? Shamiza laughed and said that it’s only Islamophobes who have a problem with the prayers.

When I asked the Baigs 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. (Even the Baigs’ own daughter once told the school at a community meeting that she preferred to sit in the back of prayer sessions because she didn’t want the boys looking at her.) I noted that boys and girls sit next to each other in class, but Ali insisted that classes and prayers are different. Plus, under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he said, they have the right to practise their religion as they see fit.

Critics of the prayer session fixated on the fact that menstruating girls aren’t allowed to participate and can only observe from the back row

During a lull in the conversation, I asked why Shamiza had been so silent. What happened to the military general from the prayers? She told me she wants her husband to take the lead. She said it’s best to let the men be in charge. Ali interrupted and said that it’s just an act, and she’s really the one who runs the show. “I’m just a backbencher,” he said.

After we finished our coffee, the Baigs were heading to the Darus Salaam and I decided to tag along. The mosque was less than a five-minute walk from the Tim Hortons, and on the way, the Baigs ran into half a dozen acquaintances who were heading to the same place. When we got there, Ali went up the front steps and Shamiza and I walked to the side of the building, toward the so-called sisters’ entrance. Not only were we not permitted to enter through the front doors, we were also segregated from the men. The sisters-only room is about 20 feet by 10. It’s carpeted, with one broken shelf containing books on Islam. Shamiza pointed out that the students use some of these same books to recite prayers at the school on Fridays. There were a couple of posters on the wall with prayers in Arabic, and a clock at the front. The women are supposed to be able to hear the prayers in the main space through speakers, but there was no sound coming through. Instead, I could hear men on the other side of the wall laughing, joking and talking loudly. It was difficult to tell what was happening. Shamiza kneeled down and started to pray. I sat there, frustrated that I couldn’t find out what was happening on the other side.

When the prayer ended, I said goodbye to Shamiza and left the mosque. The Baigs, I decided, are likable and seem well-meaning, but I don’t share their unconditional acceptance of Islamic customs. What they’re doing at Valley Park sets a dangerous precedent and legitimizes sexism. The school may be following a policy of accommodating special requests, but there’s a striking difference between designating a room for a handful of students and converting the largest room in the building for group prayer. The school becomes, in effect, a mosque.

In accordance with the Muslim calendar, Valley Park’s weekly Friday prayer sessions ended for the year on March 9. Later this year, on November 9, they’ll be back in the cafeteria.