Segregation in mosques – the woes of being a woman
Most women I know have no problem being placed behind the men in a mosque, not because they use the chance to husband-shop, (although I know some women do seize that particular ‘opportunity’) but because it is the more appealing option compared to the alternative. Segregation in mosques often manifests itself as rifling off the women into a back room from where they cannot see the Imam.
For purely practical reasons, this kind of segregation makes little sense. I’ve walked into a mosque halfway through a prayer, with no orientation and no idea whereabouts in the prayer the men are as there are no other women. Just last Eid, the Imam made a mistake – it happens. The problem is, when he corrected himself the men could see what he was doing. The women ended up looking like woodpeckers, not knowing what to do with themselves. There’s a reason that there’s an Imam, you are supposed to follow him. That’s a little challenging if you’re stuck in the outhouse.
Let’s think about it logically. Women are typically supposed to pray behind men because, well … I’m guessing partly because a row of women’s behinds in your face is going to be a bit distracting. This highlights my point. When was it decided that, instead of praying behind the men as historically has been done for centuries, women should be hauled off to a different room where they are lucky if there is a good sound system in place? Even in Mecca, the women aren’t carted off to a different room. I know Mecca is not your average mosque, but if that doesn’t set a precedent then what does?
Sometimes this type of segregation is done for purely practical reasons, particularly here in the UK, where the building is positioned in such a way that the women have to pray adjacent to the men in order to face Mecca. I would suggest that in such cases, instead of building an entire wall, cutting off the women completely, a space should be left so that the women at the front can see the Imam at the very least. Often there are very few women who attend prayers (compared to men) and I can tell you from experience that there is nothing worse than feeling excluded from the Muslim community inside your own mosque.
A similar problem arises when there are Muslim events organized in the UK. Every so often at a university or in a local meeting there might be a talk or study circle or a gathering amongst Muslims where organizers feel compelled to separate the women and men with a partition. Think about it; the more outwardly religious amongst us women wear the hijab. What purpose does this hope to serve? Nobody can deny that one of the primary objectives of the hijab is to deflect any unwanted gazes. So I ask, what is the point in wearing a hijab to these events if organizers put up a makeshift hijab barrier, separating the sexes.
To be frank, surely the point of the hijab is that it enables different members of the Muslim community to mix without fear of someone checking you out? So why risk alienating Muslim women further with a barrier? I understand that it can be a sensitive subject and organizers would rather err on the side of caution, but this is why we need dialogue between Muslim men and women. The irony is that it’s hard to have dialogue with a barrier splitting the room.
Let’s be honest, in the UK, it is not like Muslim men never speak to women or don’t come into contact with them as soon as they leave the mosque. It is impossible to earn a living or get an education without coming into contact with the fairer sex. So let’s not pretend that putting up a barrier will make that much of a difference. Perhaps a barrier is what the majority of the women at any such event would want, in which case it makes complete sense. Unfortunately, in my experience, the decision is usually made for us. Indeed during one Friday prayer I attended, I specifically heard one of the men (via a crackling microphone) saying that they ought not to bother the women by asking their opinion. So I decided not to worry my pretty little head about it.
Open the discussion and work out a solution that pleases everyone. I’m pleased to say that the mosque I just referenced has seen vast improvements in the last few months as a result of inclusion and dialogue. The way to build a strong community is to have input from all people. Otherwise you end up with bitter outcasts complaining about it on the net.