It’s Time to End Gender Segregation in Mosques

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I already know what many of you are thinking.  “This is haram/biddah/un-Islamic,” or perhaps my favorite, “This an example of people following their own desires over what God wants or commands.”  Some go as far to call Muslim feminism an “oxymoron,” or “extremely stupid,” and some even say it’s a “perversion” of Islam.  I’ve heard it all before, so if you don’t have anything new to contribute in what I hope will be a civil/mature discussion about gender relations in Islam, please don’t bother commenting.

We all know what the stereotypes say about Islam and women.  “Islam oppresses/enslaves/subjugates women!” cries the Islamophobe, and in response, all Muslims — female and male — get rightfully offended.  We get offended because we know our faith and our history.  We know how the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, abolished sexist and misogynist practices, such as female infanticide, in order to promote women’s rights and gender equality.  We know how the Prophet’s wife, Khadijah, peace be upon her, was an independent business woman who initiated a marriage proposal to Muhammad.  We know that the Qur’an, unlike the Torah, does not blame Eve for the first sin, but rather makes it clear that Adam and Eve were both in the wrong and then pardoned.  And while many of us dispute over how a woman is supposed to express the Islamic teachings of modesty, it is agreed upon that the Qur’an mandates women and men to be modest, respectful, and humble to each other.

We look around our community and know that the overwhelming majority of Muslim women choose whether or not they want to wear the hijaab (headscarf).  We read our history books and learn about empowered Muslim women over the centuries such as the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, peace be upon her, Rabia Al-Adawiyyah, Zeb-un-Nisa, and Razia Sultana.  In modern times, we have seen female prime ministers of Muslim nations like Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.  Muslim women are athletes, journalists, authors, politicians, actresses, filmmakers, photographers, activists, bloggers, students, and teachers, among so many other things.  With all of this in mind, it sounds like the Muslim community enjoys gender equality.  Unfortunately, when we look closer, especially at our Mosques, we see a very contrasting picture.

Muslim Women in Mosques and Male Privilege

In the majority of Mosques, women are isolated in a separate room that is often smaller than the men’s section.  In some Mosques, men and women are separated by a wall or barrier, while in others, women pray behind a curtain.  I’ve been to some Mosques where a balcony is built specifically for women, which makes it easy for men to forget that women are in attendance and easy for women to feel like they have no participation in the Mosque.   Some Mosques, mostly in Muslim majority countries (but in the West as well) may not even have enough space for women.  Their argument is that women, unlike men, are not obligated to pray in Mosques.  Women, according to them, can pray at home and take care of their “womanly duties.”

Depending on how big or wealthy the Mosque is, some Muslim women may be lucky enough to get a sound system and a television in their rooms so that they can hear and see the imam deliver his khutbah (sermon) during Friday prayers.  Sadly, as most Muslim women know, Mosques are infamously known for their poor sound quality and malfunctioning televisions.  But it’s more than just about bad sound or vision.  An article from “Islam for Today,” describes the discriminatory setting that Muslim women experience in Mosques:

…[A]mong those mosques that do let women in, I’m sorry to say that most of the ones I have seen relegate the women to an inferior status. They banish them to basement rooms or other segregated spaces. Too often the second-class spaces allotted to the women are poorly maintained, uncomfortable, cramped, filthy, or otherwise substandard, while the men reserve the best areas for their exclusive use. This kind of treatment makes the preaching about women’s status being equal in Islam sound awfully hollow. Too many places don’t allow women any chance to speak and be heard, let alone have any say in the way the mosque is run.

Muslim women never give sermons or lead prayers, unless it’s front of an all-female congregation and the men can’t hear/see them.  While men are limited to speaking to men only, they have better access to the imam and can make announcements to promote events after the Friday prayer.  If a Muslim woman wants to announce an upcoming event, she must do so through a man.  In other words, she cannot even announce something in her own words or voice.  On important Islamic events and holidays, a Muslim woman’s spiritual experience is significantly affected by the gender segregation.  Krista Riley, a Muslim feminist and contributing writer of Muslimah Media Watch, shares her experience:

On the 27th night of Ramadan – the night most widely believed to be Laylat-ul-Qadr, the Night of Power – I went to the mosque for tarawih prayers, in which they would be completing the recitation of the Qur’an that they had been doing all month. This experience, of praying together on this special night as the Qur’an is completed, is a beautiful and powerful one. At least, so I am told.

What happened in reality is that the women’s section, far too small to fit all of the women who had come that evening, was crowded and uncomfortable. I ended up having to pray close to the elevator, on the marble floor, because that was the only place left when I got there; I had people walking around and in front of me all evening. On top of that, it was NOISY. Several families had brought their small children, who were all sent up to the women’s section (where the “children’s area” was, although few children stayed inside it), and who were yelling, crying, and even running around at various points throughout the prayer. While I could hear the emotion in the Imam’s voice as he recited, I could barely focus on his words, because of all of the noise and activity around me. When the prayer was over, I could not get out of that mosque fast enough. It was, without a doubt, the most stressful prayer experience I have ever had. Far from being inspired, I was annoyed, agitated, and more than a little bitter.

Krista added that she later spoke with a male friend who had no idea about the chaos she experienced.  This reveals the male privilege that too many Muslim men are utterly oblivious to.  As Krista explains:  “Completely disconnected from the women’s space, the Imam and his male followers had the luxury of truly focusing on the beautiful words whose revelation had begun that same month, so many centuries before.”

Muslim male privilege is a reality that cannot be denied, but it often seems difficult for many Muslim men to understand.  Muslim men do not have to worry about having enough space in the Mosque nor do they have to worry about easy accessibility to the imam or shaykh.  Although women have religious and Qur’anic classes, they cannot have the same aspirations as men, such as becoming an imam or shaykh.  As a result of male-dominated spiritual leadership, men can abuse their power and preach sexist interpretations of Islam in order to control women.   Muslim men also have better chances of establishing positions on the administrative board and do not have to worry about being discriminated against because of their gender.

Prior to reading Muslim feminist literature, I was virtually unaware of the sexism that took place within our community, which exposes my own male privilege.  Some Muslims do not consider it sexism, however, and they often present theological arguments to justify segregation.  For example, a study called “Mosques, Collective Identity and Gender Differences Among Arab American Muslims,” by Amaney Jamal, reports that female Mosque attendance is considerably lower than male attendance, but the opposite argument would be that women are not obligated to attend Mosques as men are.  To justify the partition, the argument is that segregation is about modesty and respecting the opposite sex.  Some Muslims believe it is impermissible for a woman to lead men and women in prayer or give a khutbah because their voices and physical appearances can be “distracting.”  While I strongly value the teachings of modesty in Islam, I argue that the manner in which most Mosques practice segregation actually sexualizes gender relationships in ways that many don’t realize.

The Case Against Partition

There is a lot of evidence from the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) that barriers did not exist during the time of the Prophet.  Interesting enough, a Hadith narrated by Ibn Abbas, the paternal cousin of Muhammad, reported that a woman used to pray directly behind the Prophet while he led prayer.  Muslim feminist and filmmaker, Zarqa Nawaz, points out in her documentary film, “Me and the Mosque,” that women used to speak up at Mosques and even refute the speaker if they had to.  For example, after the Prophet’s death, a woman challenged the Caliph, ‘Umar bin Khattab, by citing the Qur’an after he tried to reduce the mahr, a monetary gift a man gives to a woman before marriage.  It was ‘Umar who was ultimately responsible for relegating women to separate rooms.

As I mentioned, separating the sexes on the basis that women and men are physical (read: sexual) distractions to one another sexualizes gender relationships  (it’s really presented as women being distractions to men).  Like all societies, gender socialization is no different in the Muslim community.  Men and women are conditioned by socialized gender roles and expectations, i.e. men are the breadwinners and women are the homemakers.  I remember at a Youth Group meeting, our Mufti was teaching Muslim male adolescents that their primary focus (after being a good Muslim) was on establishing a career that (1) required the least amount of work and (2) paid the most amount of money.  He stressed that careers were important because it enables Muslim men to get married, and settling down with a family is what all Muslims should aspire for.  When we spoke with our Youth Group about dating, I only heard condemnations and unrealistic lessons on how to avoid girls and keep interactions as minimum as possible.  Women were not being presented as individuals, but as temptresses who are after a man’s purity/virginity.   Women, according to the coordinators at my Mosque, need to be avoided until a man is ready for marriage.

Sobia Ali, a Muslim feminist who has also contributed to the aforementioned Muslimah Media Watch, shares her perspective on the sexualization of Muslim women (emphases added):

The reason Mosques segregate is so that men and women do not get distracted by each other. However, the greater concern is with men’s distraction. The segregation is MAINLY so that men are not distracted by women – more specifically women’s bodies. It is not women’s mere presence, but rather seeing her body, or hearing her voice which could distract him. Why? Because men could be sexually attracted to women’s bodies and this will interfere with his worship. Therefore, knowing this, and then being forced to be in a completely different space than men, does nothing but remind me that my body, my female form, is a sexual distraction to the men in the Mosque.  This of course makes me feel like a sex object or sexual being.

The moment we say a woman’s voice may tempt a man, we are making a sexually-charged remark.  We are opposed to the idea of a woman leading prayer because we immediately think that men will “check her out.”  Yet we never seem to realize that women can be attracted to the voice of a Muslim man too.  I remember in my freshman year of college, some Muslim girls I knew were raving about how beautifully a Muslim man was reciting the Qur’an during prayer.  And there was more to it than just appreciating his spirituality and devotion.  “Well it’s different for men,” I remember a Muslim friend telling me once.  “Men are weaker, and they’re easily attracted to the opposite sex.”

Why do we treat gender interactions as a potentially sexual act?  Are Muslim men so weak that they’re unable to control their urges?  Are Muslims supposed to get married based upon socio-economic compatibility over Love and friendship?  I remember a fellow Muslim told me, “Just find someone you’re compatible with, don’t wait to fall in Love.”  At the Mosque, I made a comment once about how I Love Lebanese food, and the response was, “Oh, we’ll have to find you a good Lebanese sister for you, insha’Allah (God willing).”  I’ve noticed that a “good Muslim wife” in the eyes of the Muslim men at my Mosque is someone who is obedient, religious, wears hijaab, and knows how to raise a family.  God forbid if there is anything about romance or a woman’s individuality/personality.  Why aren’t we taught about the Love that hazrat Khadija and Muhammad had for one another?

Who’s Afraid of Amina Wadud and Female Imams?

Amina Wadud is a Muslim feminist and scholar who made international headlines when she led Friday prayer for a mixed-gender congregation in New York on March 18th, 2005.  Over 100 Muslim women and men participated in the prayer despite the controversy and protests that took place.  The Muslim protesters held signs reading, “Mixed congregation today, hell-fire tomorrow,” and one of the speakers was a young Muslim man screaming his head off  about how Amina Wadud is a “prostitute” and “whore.”  Apparently, if a sister in faith is doing something conservatives disagree with, the best way to teach her about modesty is to degrade her sexuality.  Who objectifies who again?

Wadud’s prayer was not the first female-led mixed-gender congregation in Islamic history, but it was the first that received international attention.  Most of the outrage comes, unsurprisingly, from Muslim men, who argue that Islam does not permit a woman to lead a mixed-congregation.  These reactions are interesting to me because I believe they reveal an underlying fear of empowered Muslim women.

It is always irrational when men get offended by feminist movements.  The fear that women want to “enslave men” is a result of the bruised male ego.  Men often neglect the fact that women have been treated as property, non-equals, and sex objects for centuries (and still are) by a male-dominated world.  A lot of men, whether they’re conscious of it or not, do not want to give up their position of power and they’re afraid of losing their dominance over women.  In the case of Amina Wadud, some Muslims argue that a female imam contradicts Islamic Law, but will not bother to read her book or alternative arguments, as if Islam is a monolith and only has one rigid interpretation.

Are we really taught that hazrat Khadijah was an independent tradeswoman and yet women are not allowed to lead prayers?  Are we really taught that “paradise is at the feet of your mother” by the Prophet, and yet we can’t listen to a Muslim woman deliver a khutbah because of whatever “genetic disposition” she has as a female?  Can we really believe that Fatima Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet, will be the first person to enter the afterlife, and yet the voices of Muslim women are completely shut out at Mosques?  How can we truly follow the Qur’an, which teaches that men and women are equal spiritual beings, when our community treats women as intellectually inferior to men?

The Muslim Ummah can never move forward or become enlightened unless we evolve spiritually, empower Muslim women, and truly practice gender equality.  Allah gave us brains and encourages us to our reason and logic.  Instead of raging against Muslim women leading prayers, why aren’t we focusing on the horrible sexual double standard that takes place in our community?  What about the Muslim men who fool around with multiple women, but then eventually settle down with a virgin Muslim woman?  It is impossible to deny that Muslim women are far more stigmatized and penalized if their shortcomings are discovered by their male counterparts.  Why don’t the angry protesters at Amina Wadud’s prayer express their outrage at their Muslim brothers who get drunk, sleep around, and deny the rights of their sisters?

Moving Forward

First of all, we need to get rid of this notion that “feminism” is a bad word.  It’s not.  Feminism is about promoting the respect, dignity, and equality of all human beings — women and men.  Second, Muslims need to stop associating feminism with “Western decadence,” or “Western liberalism,” which usually means “secularism.”  Muslim feminist values are rooted in Islam, not in something external.  I believe with all of my heart that Islam is a perfect religion that teaches gender equality, but Muslims are not perfect, which is why it’s important to address these issues.

Mosques need to be more inclusive of Muslim women. Muslim women should be encouraged to be leaders in our communities, as imams, scholars, educators, directors, activists, artists, and so on.  I personally believe in removing the barrier and having Muslim men and women praying in the same room — with men on one side and women on the other.  Separate rooms should be made to accommodate for the Muslims who have more conservative views or want privacy.

Muslims need to remember what their religion teaches them.  If Muslim men really understood modesty and humility, we’d be showing so much more respect to women. If a Muslim woman leads prayer or gives a khutbah, we should not be thinking sexual thoughts. If a man has sexual thoughts going into the Mosque, nothing — not even a barrier — is going to stop him from having sexual thoughts or desires unless he restrains himself.

Lastly, the phrase “tear down the walls of separation” is an Islamic mystical (Sufi) expression used to convey the passionate longing that exists in our Souls — longing for the Divine, longing for Oneness, longing for self-actualization, and so on.  Beyond the physical, beyond gender, and beyond this shell we call “body,” there is a Being at the center of it all.  It is not your mouth or tongue that speaks, but rather your Being from within — that mystery we call “heart” and “soul.” The Qur’an teaches gender equality, and yes, women and men are different in many ways, but rather than limiting ourselves to roles based upon gender expectations, we should emphasize on celebrating and appreciating our differences.  If we do not actively oppose the sexism and misogyny in our communities, it will persist and only move one step closer to becoming permanent.

“Verily, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in their hearts” – Qur’an 13: 11