Canadian Islamic Schools: Unraveling the Politics of Faith, Gender, Knowledge, and Identity

Author(s): Jasmin Zine

Source: Zine, Jasmin. 2008. Canadian Islamic Schools: Unraveling the Politics of Faith, Gender, Knowledge, and Identity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.



Jasmin Zine’s Canadian Islamic Schools examines the non-academic outcomes of Islamic schooling on Muslim youth. Although Islamic schools have become much more common in Canada as the Muslim population of that country has increased over time, these schools remain under-researched and are typically stereotyped either as hotbeds of terrorist activity or as a way for Muslim immigrants to avoid assimilation into Canadian culture. Using qualitative data collected over a year and a half at four Canadian Islamic schools, Zine works to dispel these stereotypes by providing a clear, multifaceted picture of the role Islamic schools play in both the Muslim community and the lives of the individuals connected with them. This book details the functions Islamic schools fulfill in Islamic society, the construction of gender identities and ideologies in Islamic schools, and what Zine refers to as the “Islamization of knowledge,” all while situating Islamic schools within the larger context of Canadian society and the Muslim diaspora.


Background and Research Questions

Religious schools exist as a way for spiritually minded parents to ensure that their children receive a God-centered education, rather than an education characterized by secular humanism that has become the norm in public institutions. Islamic schools are no different, though they face criticism from both the Muslim community and society at large for serving as institutions of indoctrination as well as educational “ghettos” which isolate Muslim youth from their non-Muslim peers and prevent full assimilation. Most of the scant research which exists about Islamic schools in North America and Britain has focused on topics such as teen pregnancy and drug use, or descriptive analyses of gender in Islamic schools. Zine expands upon these studies by taking a deeper look at the role of Islamic schooling in the Muslim diaspora, how Muslim schooling affects the development of Muslim identity, and the “Islamization of knowledge” in these schools.


Data and Analysis

Zine gathered her data using interviews, focus groups, and participant and non-participant observation at four Sunni Islamic schools in the Greater Toronto Area over a course of 18 months between September 1999 and July 2001. The schools had diverse student bodies in terms of nationality of origin and socioeconomic status, and the schools varied greatly in terms of available resources. Zine interacted with 49 participants—students, teachers, administrators, parents, and one community activist—to generate a broad perspective on Islamic schooling. Zine connected with her participants via snowball sampling within the four schools, which Zine felt necessary due to past experience of low response rates to more randomized methods of recruitment such as flyer distribution. Zine’s sample does not include individuals with limited or no English skill, which at one school excluded multiple administrators from study participation; she admits that this sample limitation does indeed influence her findings, as the immigrant/first-generation Islamic experience in Canada certainly differs from the native-born/second generation experience.

Zine completed a “critical ethnography” during her time at these schools, which allowed her to situate her own experience and knowledge as a Muslim woman who had sent her children to an Islamic elementary school within the narrative of her study population. She used a grounded theory approach, meaning she allowed her theories and themes to grow organically from her data. She also shared preliminary findings with individuals involved in her study in an effort to allow this group to “co-create” their own narrative.



The Role of Islamic Schools

Zine finds that Islamic schools serve four main purposes within Islamic communities. First, they provide an educational alternative for parents and students seeking an educational experience that emphasizes the spiritual over the secular. Muslim students feel like they fit in more with peers at Islamic schools because they do not have to explain or feel ostracized about aspects of their daily life like what they eat and how they dress. Islamic schools also have the benefit of being arranged around the Islamic calendar in a way that public schools are not; students could take time in their schedules to pray and not attend school on Eid, rather than having a school calendar structured around Christianity and secular holidays.  Second, these schools serve as insulation against negative influences for students, which Zine characterizes as positive, protecting students rather than “ghettoizing” them. Most students reported feeling much more comfortable in the familial environment of an Islamic school as compared to a public school environment where they felt more alienated due to their beliefs. Many students also mentioned maintaining friendships with former public school classmates, offering evidence against the idea that Islamic schools allow students to be completely cut off from mainstream society. Third, these schools allow “wayward” students to engage in a process called “cultural reconstruction” which reconnects students to their Islamic culture. Students who have drifted from the “straight path” of Islam by engaging in acts their parents deem as problematic, such as drug use, premarital relationships, or crime, generally cease those actions when channeled into the supportive, tight-knit community of an Islamic school where positive peer pressure and more watchful authority figures encourage behavior that is more in line with the teachings of Islam. Fourth, Islamic schools serve as a means of social reproduction, allowing Islamic identity and lifestyle to be passed down even within the wider context of a non-Islamic society. Islam is a culture as much as a religion, and these schools give students an opportunity to figure out their identity as a Muslim within a supportive, informative environment.  These schools are seen as a “safe haven” (96) and lead to a greater feeling of connection with the Muslim community among students.



Islamic schools provide a space for Muslim girls to escape what Zine calls “gendered Islamophobia,” in which non-Muslims stereotype female Muslims as unintelligent, submissive, and oppressed, among other things. One of the “hot topics,” so to speak, which comes up often in the debate about Islam and gender equality is the hijab, the headscarf Muslim women typically wear as a visible expression of modesty and faith. Canadian Muslim women have had to fight for the right to wear hijabs in public settings (including schools), and a great deal of negative stereotyping still occurs against Muslim women who choose to wear a headscarf. Even within the Islamic tradition, Zine points out, “the headscarf or hijab is imbued with multiple and complex sociological and political meanings” (158). The hijab serves as an embodied cultural and religious symbol, broadcasting a woman’s faith to others. Female students were required to wear the hijab at school as part of the school dress code (one school also required girls to wear the abaya, a loose robe worn over street clothes), but most girls reported also wearing the hijab outside of school, and none of the girls reported being “forced” to do so by family members. While some girls pushed back against having to wear the hijab at school (where the headscarf served as a symbol of both religious and school authority), most opted to wear it as an expression of faith, modesty, and self-identification as a Muslim woman. Girls felt much more comfortable doing so within Islamic schools, due to peer pressure to conform to more mainstream styles of dress in public schools. Many girls described instances of discrimination outside of school, such as being called “illegal immigrants” or being refused entry to public transportation while wearing a headscarf or an abaya; such harassment obviously did not occur within the safe space of the Islamic school. Girls were hyperaware of the fact that their hijabs marked them as decidedly Muslim and therefore as outsiders to mainstream Canadian society. They felt pressure, then, to perform as representatives of that of all Islamic culture while out in public. Zine concludes her section on veiling by pointing out that girls develop their own identities as Muslim women while being both supported by and constrained by the rules and environment of an Islamic school. The constant interplay between the patriarchal rationale for veiling within the Islamic community and the racist stereotyping against veiling outside of the Islamic community create a difficult landscape for Muslim girls to navigate, which the resources provided by Islamic schools alleviate.


Construction of Gendered Identities and Sensibilities

All schools, religious or secular, serve as important sites where young people construct their identities. Islamic schools simply provide students with a different set of cultural scripts from which to choose as compared to public schools. Zine focuses mainly on Muslim girls, who authority figures expected to pattern themselves after what she describes as the “pious Muslim girl” archetype (190) by performing external shows of faith such as wearing a hijab and engaging in modest behavior. Islamic schools institutionalize these practices by requiring a hijab as part of the school uniform and enforcing sex segregation in classrooms. School policies reflected Islamic teachings in a way that restricted and monitored female behavior much more than that of boys. However, despite disciplinary double standards, it is worth noting that multiple teachers took active steps to encourage girls to see themselves as academically equal to their male classmates; in one teacher’s words, “when it comes to knowledge there is no modesty” (196).  Higher levels of surveillance for female students than male students was often framed by parents and educators as a way of protecting girls, while Zine argued that the restrictive aspect of these rules could not be ignored. The female students themselves often spoke of single-sex environments as “freer” than mixed-gender contexts, as all-female environments allowed them to speak and behave more naturally without the pressure of the additional rules that accompanied interactions with males.  However, girls who spent time in co-ed environments outside of school often reported feeling very uncomfortable interacting with boys in those settings due to lack of experience. The girls seemed to realize that the “protection” offered by Islamic school regulations often came at the cost of personal freedom, especially since they could witness first-hand the double standards for behavior, such as boys being allowed to walk down the street to the mosque for Friday prayers while girls had to remain at school. Some girls justified this situation by arguing that they gained spiritual freedom by giving up physical freedom, while others saw limitations as a lack of trust on administrators’ part and contested these regulations outright. Female students worked within the boundaries provided to them by the school to create their own idea of what it meant to be a Muslim woman.


The Islamization of Knowledge

Zine describes the Islamization of knowledge as an educational process that allows students to “[examine] the contributions and transformations that Islamic thought can make in mainstream public discourse and praxis” (19) in addition to providing Islamic touchstones and adding an Islamic “spin” to Western knowledge, creating Islamic alternatives to Western discourses. This process creates a uniquely Muslim perspective on the Eurocentric curriculum required by the Ontario Ministry of Education, which oversees even private religious academies including these Islamic schools. The main goal in this process is that the Islamic world becomes central in Islamic school curriculums, rather than the Western world of Europe and North America. Ideally, an Islamic education ensures that students absorb Islamic culture both in the form of Islamic history and Arabic classes and through integration of their spiritual worldview and typically secularized classes such as mathematics and literature. Teachers tried to present centuries-old teachings in modern ways to help students connect with their faith, such as referring to prayer as a “phone call to Allah” (235) during prayer time with young children, or finding hadith or ayat that related to scientific phenomena like the water cycle in science classes. However, Zine points out that this incorporation of Islamic knowledge into the curriculum is spotty, as this practice does require specialized knowledge and currently no formalized training exists to aid teachers in this process. Social justice education is also typically a part of this aspect of the curriculum, with teachers encouraging students to stay cognizant of world events and to exercise their rights to be political active on behalf of their community.



Zine certainly succeeds in her goal of providing a more holistic, engaged examination of the effects of Islamic schooling on Muslim communities and students. She engages in an impressive amount of reflexivity to acknowledge her own positionality as a Muslim woman whose children have attended Islamic schools in the past and how that her status as an insider in this community could affect her findings. She also acknowledges her personal struggles with the possible implications of her work in a political climate where her findings could easily be “turned against [her] community” (76). She also makes a compelling case for why her Muslim identity allowed her to access her research sites and interact with her subjects in a way that may not have been possible had she not been Muslim, though she perhaps could have said more to address the possible impact her role as an authority figure within the schools she studied may have changed how her student participants interacted with her. In all, her careful research and deep engagement with her data allow Zine to present a fair and unbiased picture of Islamic education. Beyond this strength, it is also worth noting that several chapters contain practical strategies for improving Islamic education that would make this book an excellent tool for not just sociologists of religion and education, but for Islamic educators as well.

That being said, there is some room for improvement in the study. First, it must be noted that all of Zine’s data predate the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States and therefore do not reflect the impact of that event’s backlash against the Muslim diaspora, even in Canada. The author still addresses 9/11 throughout the book and implicitly seems to take the stance that her arguments would only be strengthened by the increase of anti-Muslim sentiment after that event. Whether or not this extrapolation is fair is debatable. Further, there is little engagement throughout the book with the fact that the students of these schools represent a very diverse geography, with students hailing from South Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and some African countries. How do Islamic schools avoid privileging the traditions of one region over another? Perhaps this gap is unaddressed in the data, but Zine should have at least acknowledged the effects (or lack of effects) of the geographic diversity of the Islamic diaspora on Islamic education. Finally, the work as a whole would have benefitted from more engagement with other work on religious. Many of the positive aspects of Islamic schools mentioned by students in the study, such as not having to worry about fashion because everyone is conforming to the dress code, could also be present in other religious or non-religious private schools. Zine focuses specifically on Islamic schools.  Making connections with literature about schools associated with other faith traditions would have allowed Zine to argue whether or not her findings were specific to Islamic schools (as one would reasonably assume she would). Still, Zine’s work is unique in its scope and depth and serves as an excellent addition to the sociological literature on both religious education and the Islamic diaspora.

Keywords: Islamic schooling, gender, identity, community

Sector: Muslim,  Private

Outcomes: Cultural Impact,  Family,  Morality and Character Formation,  Peers and Social Networks,  Religious and Spiritual

Date Posted: 2017-04-04