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Scarf Ban? Not in Toronto

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    Muslims don French flag colours at a Paris protest last month.

    Scarf ban? Not in Toronto
    Students respect others' beliefs
    French proposal unpopular here


    Every day students in Toronto schools see classmates wearing religious symbols — crosses on Christians, skullcaps on Jewish students, head scarves on Muslim girls following the Qur'anic instruction to dress modestly. They also see few outward signs of religious affiliation.

    And their reaction to head scarves and other religious attire that have caused the French government to introduce legislation to ban such symbols in public schools starting next September?

    No problem.

    "It's Toronto," said Clancy Zeifman, 16, who attends Forest Hill Collegiate.

    "It's so multicultural. We are encouraged to practise our religion. We're taught in school to accept all religions. It's the way we've grown up."

    In Toronto, where 17 per cent of the population is Muslim, Jewish, Sikh or Buddhist, and another 17 per cent say they have no religion, educators have chosen an alternative to banning signs of religious affiliation. It's called accommodation.

    In 1980, when the Toronto public school board made it clear that the Lord's Prayer was not to be read exclusively during opening exercises in its schools, prayer wasn't banned.

    Despite objections from the province, led then by Progressive Conservative premier Bill Davis, the Lord's Prayer was dropped, but the board replaced it with a booklet of prayers and readings from all faiths, chosen by a 40-member inter-faith panel. The booklet became so popular it was used around the world.

    "It's the way we are," said Ned McKeown, who was the Toronto board's education director through the 1980s. "This issue of tolerance clearly sets us apart.

    "That's been a good thing. If we are not going to accept differences, that's the slippery slope. The right thing is to accommodate differences."

    The Toronto District School Board has a set of guidelines, introduced in 2000, to accommodate students' religious beliefs.

    The guidelines tell teachers that some Jewish boys will want to wear a head covering, such as a skullcap or yarmulke, or even a baseball cap. Some Seventh Day Adventists may want their children to be exempt from Halloween activities. Sikh students may carry a kirpan, a small ceremonial sword, but at school it must be secured in its sheath at all times.

    Be prepared for Jehovah's Witness students to bow out of Christmas or Valentine's Day festivities, the guidelines say. Some Muslim students may not be allowed to play stringed instruments and may require a prayer room during the school day.

    The argument that making allowances for different religious needs may lead to greater segregation of minorities doesn't sit well with Cathy Dandy of the Toronto Parent Network. "That slippery-slope argument is just a licence to discriminate. The same argument was used against giving the vote to women.

    "Democracy is incredibly messy," she said. "You have to keep things as open and wide as you can, to be tolerant and transparent and diverse."

    Young people don't have to be separated by their religious differences, said Michelle Sebasta, 17, of St. Francis Xavier Secondary School in Mississauga, where about 200 students in the Catholic school are Muslim.

    "Here at Xavier, we embrace the differences. They unify us."

    Isra Wani, 17, also at St. Francis Xavier, is attending a Catholic school for the first time. "We were discussing creation stories in class. One of the girls in my class was very strong in her beliefs and it made me like her better rather than creating a distance."

    While Greater Toronto students who spoke to the Star say they are appalled at the French proposal to ban "conspicuous" religious symbols to ensure the rigorously secular nature of state schools, recent surveys in France show 69 per cent of the general population supports the move, including 49 per cent of Muslim women.

    The poll shows that wearing the head scarf, or hijab, is controversial in the Muslim community, Alia Hogben, the executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, said in an interview from Kingston.

    "Most of our membership would say we don't think covering one's hair is in the Qur'an, but modesty is. Therefore, Muslim women can be good Muslim women whether they wear hijab or not. We support their right to choose, just as we would hope Muslim women would support our right not to wear it."

    Aishwarya Ramakrishnan, 17, a student at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute in Toronto, said she supports the French move to ban religious symbols, but adds it's the easiest and fastest solution and doesn't get at the root of the problem.

    "They say what they are trying to do is promote gender equality. It's a noble cause. They don't want intolerance directed at Islamic groups infecting the school system. I respect a government that takes enough interest to promote this equality," she said.

    "I understand that they want to stop oppression," said classmate Talha Ahmed, 18, wearing a Muslim head covering.

    "But the method is inappropriate."

    "It's not right to believe someone is oppressed because she is wearing a head scarf," said Asha Alam, 18.

    "What about a nun wearing a habit? I wear the scarf by choice. No one is forcing me. If I chose to take it off, I could, though my parents would be disappointed.

    "This is what it means to live in a democratic society — to live freely and openly."

    Huan Yu, 16, at Forest Hill, said she couldn't see how banning religious symbols would promote equality.

    "It won't stop people who are racists, it will add fuel to the fire."

    Fellow student Shadi Shahkhalili, 17, said she likes Toronto life because differences are celebrated.

    "When I came here, I didn't want to hang out with Iranians," she said. "I wanted to experience the world."

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