The Danger in Associating with Kings

From illustrated copy of Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār’s Manṭiq al-ṭayr. This miniature
From the illustrated copy of Farīd al-Dīn ‘Attār’s Mantiq al-tayr. This miniature “shows a king, who has summoned all and sundry to admire his new palace, receiving a sharp admonition from an unimpressed ascetic. Despite its flawless appearance, there is an invisible fissure in one wall through which ‘Azrā’īl, the Angel of Death, will one day enter to collect the king’s soul” (Source).

I know it’s been about 4 months since I’ve posted something on my blog, but I’m hoping to add some new content soon, insha’Allah! Not too long ago, a friend shared a chapter from Jalaluddin Rumi’s Fihi Ma Fihi with me and I came across this excerpt that I thought was worth sharing. Although written in the 13th century, it is difficult to overlook the political and spiritual relevance it carries today, especially about the influence of those in power, the danger of such alliances, and the way structural oppression operates.

The excerpt is below:

“The danger in associating with kings is not that you may lose your life, for in the end you must lose it sooner or later. The danger lies in the fact that when these ‘kings’ and their carnal souls gain strength, they become dragons; and the person who converses with them, claims their friendship, or accepts wealth from them must in the end speak as they would have him/her speak and accept their evil opinions in order to preserve him/herself. He/she is unable to speak in opposition to them. Therein lies the danger, for his/her religion suffers.

The further you go in the direction of kings, the more the other direction, which is the principal one, becomes strange to you. The further you go in that direction, this direction, which should be beloved to you, turns its face away from you. . . . ‘Whosoever renders aid to the unjust/oppressor is subjugated to them by God’ [1]. When you have fully inclined toward the one to whom you are inclining, he will be made master over you.”

– Jalaluddin Rumi, from Fihi Ma Fihi.

[1] Rumi quoting a Hadith of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), quoted in ‘Abd al-Ra’uf al-Munawi, Kunuz al-haqa’iq

Platonic Friendships and the “Man Box”

A recent online discussion sparked a heated debate over the idea of platonic friendships. A video was shared about Steve Harvey, author of “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man” (I don’t blame you if you want to headdesk after reading that title), who told CNN that women and men cannot be friends. His argument was that platonic friendships could not exist because men are always seeking an opportunity to make it more than just friendship. He backed up this claim by simply saying, “Because we’re guys.” In other words, all men are the same and biologically programmed to be attracted to every woman they meet.

I explained to my friends that my problem with Harvey’s comments is that they are sexist and homogenizing. In the heterosexual context, arguing that women and men cannot be friends reinforces a lot of rigid and sexist norms about gender. It perpetuates the popular stereotype that men are innately sexual predators who “cannot control” their “desires” or “urges,” while implying that women cannot be sexual and are “delusional” for believing that they can have male friends. I do not deny that there are challenges in platonic friendships, especially when one person is interested in something more than friendship, and I do not deny the possibility of physical and/or emotional attraction. Certainly, there are people who have struggled in maintaining friendships with the opposite sex, but it doesn’t mean that true platonic friendships cannot exist, or that women and men must be completely segregated. It doesn’t mean women and men are wired to exclusively view each other in a sexual and/or romantic context. A brilliant blogger at “Oh, You’re a FEMINIST?!” criticizes the way Good Morning America once cited a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found opposite sex friendships have a 15% chance of ending in an affair.  The show emphasized on the 15%, but never asked about what happens 85% of the time.

In many ways, dichotomous conceptions of gender service patriarchy because they assign sexist gender patterns to both women and men. Consider, for instance, how sexually promiscuous men can justify their behavior by merely saying, “Hey, I can’t help myself. I’m a guy!” This “excuse” not only equates male sexuality with sexual promiscuity, but also standardizes such behavior to make it socially acceptable (as is evident in how men are judged in positive ways with words like “stud,” “pimp,” “player,” “Casanova,” and so on). Of course, if a woman behaved in the same or similar manner, she would be called a “slut,” “whore,” and other degrading insults. What is often overlooked is how dangerous this sexual double-standard is and how it’s another way to control women through shame, humiliation, and judgment.

On the same thread, a couple of people supported Harvey’s statements by bringing up John Gray’s “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” book. I mentioned a feminist critique of the book and explained how extremely problematic Gray’s presentation of the sexes is. Aside from the fact that Gray writes from “his own observations” and doesn’t include a single footnote in the book, he treats all men as alike, and all women as alike. He states that when men are troubled, they will “retreat” to “their cave” (which he defines as their television room, basement, workshop, etc.) because they need “alone time” to “sort things out.” Gray suggests that there is nothing a woman can do or change about her male partner’s refusal to speak or express himself. She is supposed to leave him alone because that’s how all men are: we’d rather just sit in front of the TV than seek help and communicate with our partner.  In actuality, credible research shows that men tend to resort to bullying and abusive behavior when they are troubled (source cited in Julia T. Wood’s critique, “A Critical Response to John Gray’s Mars and Venus Portrayals of Men and Women”).  It is true that women and men have differences, but to treat them as if they’re from different planets essentially creates an unnecessary barrier and completely shuts down room for healthy dialogue. After exposing Gray’s sexist and totalizing portrayals of gender, a male Muslim defender of the book called my analysis “militant” and “tainted by an aggressive feminist flare.”

What I found discouraging was how antagonistic a couple of the Muslim men were towards feminism (and, for the record, I know plenty of non-Muslim men who would vilify feminism as well). Although there was a Muslim man who agreed with me on the thread, he was quickly pushed out of the conversation when the debate became about feminism.  Consider bell hooks’ definition of feminism, which she describes as a movement that seeks to eradicate sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression. It is a movement that recognizes the interlocking nature of sexism, racism, classism, and other forms of oppression, and how these injustices must be confronted in order to radically restructure society and bring about revolutionary, transformative change. I argue that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a feminist because his elimination of female infanticide in 7th century Arabia, along with other revolutionary acts, sought to end sexism, sexual violence, and other oppressions.

Despite sharing this definition of feminist philosophy and politics, I was told by one of the Muslim men that feminist classes are “full of rubbish” and “nonsense.” He also said, “You need to learn about manliness in Islam.” The other Muslim man said that women and men cannot be friends because a man is “weak” and can “succumb” to his “desires” at “any moment” and at “any time.” In other words, regardless of how deeply in Love a man is with his life companion, being alone with a female friend would cause him to cheat on his wife/partner. After all, men simply cannot control themselves!

From an Islamic perspective, I’m sure most Muslims have heard the Hadith that says the devil is the third person when a woman and man are alone together.  Aside from the fact that Hadiths are disputed (and that there are Muslims who will only follow the Qur’an), there is a Qur’anic verse that may shed some light on an individual’s responsibilities and personal relationship with the self:

When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves.’ (Qur’an 14:22)

What stands out to me is how Satan says he has no power over a person and that he can only call the person.  The choice to respond to his call is yours alone.  So, if the argument is that women and men cannot be friends because men are “weak” and “succumb” to their desires, then why bother teaching self-discipline and self-control at all in Islam?  Why teach about mutual respect and that we are individually responsible for our sins?  Why treat men as exclusively sexual creatures who will want to sleep with every woman they meet?  Islamic teachings, particularly from the Sufi tradition, emphasize immensely on cleansing the self, building a personal relationship with the self, as well as with God, because there are conscious choices and decisions that we all make.  I want to clarify that I’m not saying every heterosexual person should have friends of the opposite sex, nor am I suggesting that I look down upon people who refuse to have such friendships.  I completely respect a person’s decision to abstain from opposite sex friendships (for whatever reason, spiritual or otherwise), but what I find problematic and offensive is how segregation of the sexes is often used to display one’s “religious superiority” over another person.  In other words, respectful dialogue is not encouraged when someone argues against platonic friendships while declaring that it is “un-Islamic,” “sinful,” and “against the Sunnah,” or way of the Prophet.

The comment about me needing to “learn about manliness in Islam” made me not only consider the way feminism is often stereotyped as being about “women dominating over men,” but also how strict and suppressive male social norms are.  In December, a couple of months after I wrote my post, “Eradicate Masculinity,” I saw an incredibly moving and inspiring TED video featuring activist and lecturer Tony Porter, who encouraged men to break free of the “man box” (the video is posted below, so please check it out whenever you can!).

The “man box” is a social construction; it contains the ingredients that are required for a man to be considered a “real man.”  Similar to Jackson Katz’s documentary, “Tough Guise,” Porter describes how men are constantly taught and socialized to be “tough,” “strong,” “dominating,” sexually promiscuous, etc.  Even in times of weakness and emotional distress, men will conceal their pain and sorrow by projecting a false image of themselves.  Porter tells a moving story about the loss of his teenage brother and how his father would not cry in front of him.  It was only until they were in the presence of women did his father eventually break into tears.  Later, Porter’s father apologized to him for crying, while commending Porter for not crying.  Why is it so shameful for men to express their emotions, their weaknesses, their doubts, their need for Love and compassion?  We think the “man box” actually protects us from looking “weak,” or “sissy” (which is really code for “being a girl”), but what it actually does is lock us up in a tight, suffocating prison that sucks the humanity out of us.

If the “man box” teaches us that being a man is about not being a girl, then, as Porter asks, what does that say about what we teach about girls?  Doesn’t that uphold the Mars and Venus mythology that women and men are like different species that cannot transcend socialized gender norms?  What does it say about male and female relationships, be they platonic, romantic, father-daughter, or mother-son relationships?  What does the “man box” tell us about masculinity and how it operates in terms of who gets to exert power, who gets to dominate, and who gets to control?

In heteronormative societies, to criticize masculinity is to challenge something that is celebrated in the mainstream. Deconstructing the way masculinity has been and continues to be defined is to criticize social norms that are glamorized and rewarded.  bell hooks contends that all men must “begin to criticize the sexist notions of masculinity… that equate manhood with ability to exert power over others, especially use of coercive force.”  She also adds that this violent and sexist construction of masculinity is celebrated in mainstream media:

Most men who are violent against women are not seeking help or change.  They do not feel that their acceptance and perpetration of violence against women is wrong.  How can it be wrong if society rewards them for it?  Television screens are literally flooded daily with tales of male violence, especially male violence against women.  It is glamorized, made entertaining and sexually titillating.  The more violent a male character is, whether he be hero or villain, the more attention he receives.  Often a male hero has to exert harsher violence to subdue a villain.  This violence is affirmed and rewarded.  The more violent the male hero is (usually in his quest to save or protect a woman/victim), the more he receives Love and affirmation from women.  His acts of violence in the interest of protection are seen as gestures of care, of his “Love” for women and his concern for humanity.

This image of the violent male hero/protector is  undoubtedly a dangerous standard that continues to perpetuate in most societies.  It not only normalizes male violence against both women and men, it also reemphasizes on the “innate differences” between women and men that completely close off dialogue and understanding.  The “man box” teaches us to suppress our emotions, and it can be challenging for many Muslim men because, for most of us, we feel pressure to establish careers for ourselves before we can even think about getting serious with a woman, falling in Love, and getting married.  We don’t feel worthy enough, and how can we when the “man box” tells us we need to prove our “manliness” by constantly displaying our “toughness” and “masculinity,” while hiding the things that make us human?

This isn’t to say men are exploited or oppressed by patriarchy, but rather that they do suffer from it.  To break free of the “man box” is to redefine ourselves, to liberate ourselves, to shake off the stereotypes that have been assigned to us from sexist and patriarchal ideals. My position is that male supremacy needs to be challenged, deconstructed, and eradicated to assist feminist movement in ending sexist oppression.  In order to do this, more men need to join feminist movement and challenge the way male supremacy operates in our lives.  I think one of the most common misconceptions about feminism is that it doesn’t help men, but it does and in a very meaningful way.  It liberates us from the restrictive “man box,” it teaches us to embrace our emotions and humanity; it tells us we can find Love, that we can receive and give it; it opens our hearts to understand that we are not confined to social constructions that say “boys will be boys”; it encourages us to see ourselves beyond the sexist notion that we are “only sex-minded” and that, yes, we can have meaningful friendships with women and men, whether they be heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual, etc.  Tony Porter closes his talk with these beautiful words:

I need you on board. I need you with me. I need you working with me and me working with you on how we raise our sons and teach them to be men — that it’s okay to not be dominating, that it’s okay to have feelings and emotions, that it’s okay to promote equality, that it’s okay to have women who are just friends, that it’s okay to be whole, that my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.

“My liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.” How beautiful would it be if we all recognized this interconnectedness?

I am on board, Tony.

Question: Why Do Muslim Men Talk About Hijaab?

Update (01/08/2016): I wrote this post 5 years ago and I’ve noticed how it is still one of my most popular blog posts. I’m grateful and glad people still find it worth reading and sharing. I still stand by every word I said in the original post, but over the years, I’ve noticed how this post has been misused, including by Islamophobes. The misuse has also come from liberals (often, but not always, white liberals) who aren’t exactly like the blatant Islamophobes like Pamela Geller or Robert Spencer, but nevertheless are condescending and leave comments like, “Islam is more sexist than other religions,” or “Islam needs to get with modernity.”

I know we cannot control how people use our posts, but I feel that if I add a disclaimer here, at least it will make it clear that I do not support the idea of non-Muslims using this post to perpetuate Islamophobia against Muslims/Islam. So, just to be clear: this post was written for Muslims ONLY. It is about an internal discussion within the Muslim community. It is OUR conversation, NOT one for non-Muslims to intervene or interject their opinions. I do not give permission to non-Muslims to use this post. I welcome non-Muslims to read it, but know that it is NOT your conversation and that you are NOT an ally if you think Islam is inherently sexist or misogynistic. If non-Muslims are interested in sharing it (in cases where they feel like they can draw parallels with sexism in their own communities), then please do so in ethical and responsible ways. Thanks for reading.

You can think of this as a sequel to my post on “Stop Telling Muslim Women How to Dress,” and maybe it sounds a little redundant, but I want to zero in on why Muslim men, whether they are scholars or not, feel entitled to speak about the hijaab.  Moreover, why do we often hold their stance and opinion on the topic in such high regard?

I’m asking because Muslim male authority on the hijaab and “modest dress” (whatever that means) is something I’ve always noticed in the Muslim community. I remember noticing once that one of my Islamic books, brilliantly titled “Hijaab,” was written not by a woman, but a man! There were several times during my first years of college when I felt the necessity to defend hijaab, not only because of the way Islamophobes stereotyped hijaab-wearing Muslim women as “oppressed” and “submissive,” but also because I believed my opinion was highly valued by Muslim women.

I am not going to conclude that all Muslim men believe it is their “religious obligation” to encourage women to wear the hijaab, but from my experiences in mainstream Sunni mosques, Muslim Student Association (MSA) events, and interacting with Muslim men, the emphasis on “modest dress” is primarily directed at women, implying that they should wear hijaab. Also strongly present in this discourse is that Muslim women should dress “modestly” because it protects them from lustful gazes and a man’s uncontrollable sexual desires.

It is difficult not to see how Muslim men are (1) holding women responsible for their sexual thoughts, desires, and/or behaviors, (2) dictating how women should dress, and (3) reinforcing their authority and control over women. If the Muslim men who prefer their spouses or relatives to wear hijaab cannot impose it, they will preach it in a way that makes non-hijaab-wearing women feel guilty and like “bad Muslims.” More on this later.

The problem with Muslim men constantly preaching about hijaab and feeling a sense of urgency to talk about it is that it implies Muslim women cannot speak for themselves and that their opinions are not as important or credible. I find it quite awkward and irrational when a Muslim man, especially a scholar, shares his thoughts on hijaab for several reasons. For one, Muslim men do not and cannot fully understand the lived experiences of Muslim women, both those who wear hijaab and don’t. Second, it would be like asking a White non-Muslim man to discuss how people of color “should feel” about whatever experiences they may have had with racism in their lives. It doesn’t make sense when one could be talking to the affected people directly. What does a Muslim man know about being a Muslim woman and wearing or not wearing hijaab? Nothing. So, why not talk to Muslim women themselves? Why not let Muslim women scholars address and discuss this topic? Wouldn’t that generate a richer discussion instead of listening to Muslim men simply sharing their “thoughts” and “scholarly knowledge” about something that will never affect them?

When we allow male heterosexual interpretations dominate the discourse, it leads to pushing fellow Muslims out of our community. In particular, Muslim women who don’t wear hijaab are far too often stigmatized, marginalized, and excluded by other Muslims. At Islamic conventions, banquets, or even art festivals, the absence of non-hijaab wearing Muslim speakers, activists and artists is extremely shameful. At a time when Islamophobia is rampantly growing and hating on Muslims is defended as “free speech,” our community works very hard to break stereotypes, but at the same time, we ignore the oppression existing within our community – and I’m not even talking about what happens in Muslim majority-countries either, I’m talking about how we treat each other here in North America.

Let me quickly share a true story to illustrate what I’m getting at: the other day, I was waiting at the traffic light when I noticed a White police officer in the car next to me. He kept staring at me and shooting me dirty looks. I considered the possibility that the music I had playing reminded him of the sad and lonely time when he missed the “Niyaz” concert earlier this year, hence the angry look. Or, I considered the possibility that he was simply racist scum. Anyway, it is one thing for me to anticipate these kinds of encounters with ignorant White non-Muslims, but I believe it is worse when people of color do it to each other, or more specifically, when Muslims do it to other Muslims. This is why it upsets me when I hear Muslim women share their experiences of discrimination and judgment from within our community just because they don’t wear the hijaab. I cannot speak for them, but no one should have to feel that way in their own community (or anywhere, really). The fact that they feel this way and the rest of the community overlooks it – along with other problems like the way non-Arab Muslims are treated – represents a large and serious problem that we need to resolve.

If we Muslims truly care about the unity of the Ummah – something that we always seem to groan and complain about – then critical self-reflection is required. Rather than focusing on how Muslim women dress, Muslim men should turn inward and address serious issues like the misogynistic interpretations of the Qur’an, the way we’re conditioned to perceive and treat women, and how patriarchy is counter-productive to Islam’s message of gender equality. Muslim men need to trust that Muslim women are smart enough to discuss hijaab and dress code on their own. We also need to become allies for the Muslim women who seek equal prayer space, equal opportunities, and equal rights in our community.

These sermons on hijaab or how women dress are getting old and nauseating. It’s time we take some responsibility and examine what needs to be improved if we really care about preserving the Prophet’s message (peace be upon him).

It’s Time to End Gender Segregation in Mosques

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Update (01/08/2016): I wrote this post 6 years ago and I’ve noticed how it is still one of my most popular blog posts. I’m grateful and glad people still find it worth reading and sharing. I still stand by every word I said in the original post, but over the years, I’ve noticed how this post has been misused, including by Islamophobes. The misuse has also come from liberals (often, but not always, white liberals) who aren’t exactly like the blatant Islamophobes like Pamela Geller or Robert Spencer, but nevertheless are condescending and leave comments like, “Islam is more sexist than other religions,” or “Islam needs to get with modernity.”

I know we cannot control how people use our posts, but I feel that if I add a disclaimer here, at least it will make it clear that I do not support the idea of non-Muslims using this post to perpetuate Islamophobia against Muslims/Islam. So, just to be clear: this post was written for Muslims ONLY. It is about an internal discussion within the Muslim community. It is OUR conversation, NOT one for non-Muslims to intervene or interject their opinions. I do not give permission to non-Muslims to use this post. I welcome non-Muslims to read it, but know that it is NOT your conversation and that you are NOT an ally if you think Islam is inherently sexist or misogynistic. If non-Muslims are interested in sharing it (in cases where they feel like they can draw parallels with sexism in their own communities), then please do so in ethical and responsible ways. Thanks for reading.

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 mature discussion about gender relations in Islam, please don’t bother commenting. UPDATE (3/03/2015): It also needs to be emphasized that this article was written in 2009 and focused exclusively on Sunni mosques.

We all know what the stereotypes say about Islam and women.  “Islam oppresses/enslaves/subjugates women!” cries the Islamophobe, and in response, all Muslims — women and men — get rightfully offended.  We get offended because we know our faith and our history.  We know how 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. 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 hijab (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 practices gender equality.  Unfortunately, when we look closer, especially at our Mosques, we see a very different picture.

Muslim Women in Mosques and Male Privilege

In the majority of Mosques, women are isolated in separate rooms that are 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 may not even have a 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 large and affluent 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.  Men have better access to the imam should they want to discuss the sermon in more detail, ask questions, or request for an announcement to be made. 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 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, we need to get rid of this notion that “feminism” is a bad word. Feminism is about promoting the respect, dignity, and equality of all human beings — women and men.  Second, 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 and advocates against sexist oppression, but Muslims are not perfect, which is why it’s important to address these issues.

Mosques need to create more space for 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 Muslims who prefer segregated spaces and/or want privacy.

We need to remember what our deen teaches us.  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.

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