Schoolgirls 'equal' yet segregated
STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR
Children in school uniforms that include the hijab for girls in grades 4 and up play during
lunch at ISNA Elementary School in Mississauga.
Key issues for Islamic schools
Would ISNA Elementary School like public funding? Yes.
Curriculum: Follows the Ontario curriculum
Testing: Takes part in EQAO testing for Grades 3 and 6
Teacher qualifications: About half of its 15 teachers are certified
Minutes of religious teaching per day: 20 minutes of prayer daily, plus Islamic
and Qur'an classes several times each week
Tuition: $350 per student, per month (discounted sibling rates)
Stance on homosexuality: Not discussed.
Evolution: Taught in science. In Islamic studies, students learn Allah created the
Sex education: Yes; sometimes taught in sex-segregated classes; sex allowed
between husband and wife only
Other religions: Not specifically taught
School uniforms: White hijabs (mandatory after Grade 4) with white long-sleeved
shirts and long navy dresses for girls; long-sleeved white shirts with navy pants
Special education help: Very little available
Size of community: 37 Islamic schools in Ontario with 4,000 students
The roots of discord over religious schools
John Tory tripped into a centuries-old debate when he proposed funding all religious schools in Ontario. Religion, it turns out, is Canada’s
oldest and deepest fault line.
Academically, Islamic school excels - even though not all teachers certified
Sep 22, 2007 04:30 AM
The call to prayer comes each afternoon at 1:30 p.m.
Younger students at ISNA Elementary School slip off their shoes in class and
walk quietly, in stocking feet, down the hall to their prayer space – which doubles
as the library – as older students descend from upstairs to join them. A male
student, always, carries out the call, over the school's p.a. system.
Five minutes later, they've settled into their prayer lines, with boys at the front of
the room, girls behind. (Kindergarten students, however, mix freely at the back.)
It's not the only time boys and girls are separated. Students in grades 4 through 8
– around the time of puberty – sit at opposite sides of the classroom, in some
cases a vast empty space in between. Sports for the older grades, too, are
Principal Obaid Yarkhan says the school preaches gender equity and doesn't
discourage talking between the sexes; they are seated separately because of
ISNA Elementary in Mississauga, with 260 students, is one of the private,
religious schools that hopes to be a part of the public system, as proposed by the
Ontario Conservatives should they win the October election.
But some of its practices appear at odds with what the public system embodies
— equal treatment of all. In the debate around the use of public funds for private
religious schools, it is the segregation of students along religious lines in these
schools – and the separation of women at Islamic schools in particular – that are
a central issue.
Yarkhan, a graduate of McMaster and the University of Toronto, said his students
are "taught equality between boys and girls," but that even at family gatherings,
women and men sit separately. The school's teachers have separate staff rooms,
one for "sisters" and another for "brothers."
It doesn't mean the school expects any less academically from its female
"We don't discourage girls from having a career," said Yarkhan, 27, himself
pursuing a master's degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the
University of Toronto. "Our graduates go on to be doctors, engineers."
Indeed, girls – who make up two-thirds of the school's population – participate
just as often as boys in class. Also, the school's vice-principal is a female, as are
most of the teachers.
Yarkhan will not shake the hand of a female visitor "because of my religion,"
however, the chair of the school board will, as will the director of education. He
later apologizes if any offence was taken, and says it is not something his
students are taught.
ISNA Elementary School, the first organized Islamic elementary school in
Canada and possibly North America, was established by the Islamic Society of
North America (Canada) but is now run by a separate charity under the society. It
purchased its building, on a leafy subdivision street, from the Peel public board
for about $500,000 in 1982.
The Conservatives have said in order to qualify for public funds, schools would
have to teach the Ontario curriculum, take part in standardized testing and hire
those who hold a teaching degree recognized by the Ontario College of
ISNA elementary already does the first two – in fact, its test scores in reading,
writing and math are far higher than the provincial average – and says with
additional funds it could afford certified teachers.
Here, students are taught the full Ontario curriculum. So if that means teaching
parts of evolutionary theory in science, it does – but in Islamic studies, students
learn that Allah created and sustains the universe. Students also learn Arabic
and how to properly read the Qur'an. These classes are squeezed in the school
day by eliminating the morning recess and cutting short the lunch hour.
But the budget is tight, says M.D. Khalid, who chairs the Islamic Schools
Association of Canada, which oversees ISNA elementary and its secondary
counterpart, ISNA High School, also in Mississauga, with 65 students. With
elementary school tuition at just $350 per month, discounted rates for each
additional sibling, and a bit of fundraising, it's not a lot of money.
Teacher salaries start at $25,000; and it's tough to keep them when the certified
ones could be earning $42,000 at a public board.
He sees the opportunity to join a public board as a way to bring in much-needed
funds for classroom materials and teacher resources.
But when asked about hot-button topics – like how to handle homosexuality –
and if the school would be willing to compromise its teachings, he says that, first,
religious schools should be publicly funded on principle.
"Those are the details that will come out when it comes to that issue," added
Khalid Khokhar, director of education, who worked for a Guelph-area public
board for almost three decades.
Yarkhan said if the school was to become a part of the public system, sex
segregation is something that could be "open for discussion" but right now it's the
"We don't find it harmful for a boy to sit with another girl, but it's just some of the
etiquettes the school has – the school, the parents, this is what they would like to
The school serves a Sunni population, but Khalid says it has enrolled students of
other sects, and once a Christian family. While most of ISNA's students were
born in Canada, their families may hail from Somalia, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.
"Religion is not something you leave at home," said Khalid. "It's a way of life."
Yarkhan said the school emphasizes that "regardless of their background, they
are Canadian kids."
It is education with "an Islamic touch to it," he explains. "We are preserving our
Talk of Allah isn't a big part of the non-religious classes, although religion is
incorporated into regular classes in small ways.
"Sometimes when we talk about science, we talk about Muslim scientists and
what they contributed, to show kids our heritage," says Yarkhan. "But we don't
mix religious beliefs with scientific principles."
When his Grade 7 social studies class was discussing aboriginal peoples, he
noted that their shaman was akin to an imam.
Grade 2 teacher Sadia Ahmed said religious talk rarely enters her class, but after
teaching her students venn diagrams showing the similarities and differences
between tigers and fish, she says if a student were to ask her why a tiger is
orange and black, "My response is that's how Allah made it."
But books can be tricky. She loves the story of Ramona the Pest, but omits or
changes the part where Ramona tries to kiss the boys, because such talk is
haraam, or forbidden by God. So why choose the book in the first place, she is
"Because," she says, "it's a funny little girl who's a troublemaker."
In her class, all but three girls wear the hijab, or headscarf, which isn't mandatory
until Grade 4. Children address her as "Sister Sadia," something she said she
had to get used to after teaching in public schools in Florida.
Her classroom is like any in a public school; a Canadian flag adorns the
chalkboard and the walls have alphabet trains and other educational posters. By
the door is a poster outlining the basics of the Qur'an, beside one listing various
At this age, students learn to recite two chapters of the Qur'an, and take about 45
minutes of Arabic each day. All students are preparing for an upcoming Qur'an
memorization contest, with cash prizes.
Good manners and well-behaved students are what Ahmed has noticed about
the school, and the academics are excellent; she finds that students who join her
class partway through the year are behind in their studies. But ISNA is
underfunded, she said, meaning little special education is provided and
resources for English language learners are scarce.
"Class size is a big issue here," she said, and she wishes the school had a
better-stocked library, a full-time librarian and a gym teacher.
She sees the advantages of a religious education – her own two daughters
attend the school – because during times like Ramadan, she knows to go easy
on the children, who are fasting.
But she enrols her own children in activities outside school.
"Ninety per cent of children stay only in the circle and I don't want them to grow
up in that environment."
Prayer too is a daily part of life at ISNA; and although there is a lot of chatter in
between prayers, Yarkhan said students are in the process of learning how to
As for the students, they like being around other Muslims – and say they do have
non-Muslim friends. "It's just like a normal school, but you learn about religion,"
said Grade 8 student Fatima Tahir.