For many Americans, the apparent lack of gender equality in Islam is a huge stumbling block on the road to understanding it. This may be partly because US history is tied to the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements; for many, the slow struggle for civil liberties is not yet history, including the ever-present doctrine of “separate but equal.”
Children in school today are often taught the idiom, “separate but equal is not equal,” a phrase from the landmark Supreme Court decision, Oliver Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954), which overturned the constitutionality of racial segregation as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution. This victory opened the door to the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s and on, which many people consider parts of the same basic struggle.
To Americans, especially those concerned with civil rights, when men and women are separated in a mosque, it immediately triggers concerns about gender equality, which is exacerbated by the high instances of domestic violence, and the clear denial of civil rights to women in the Muslim world. So, naturally they presume Islam is the problem, even though Islam prescribes a comprehensive system of rights and responsibilities for men and women which may not be identical, but should be complimentary. Not to put too strong a point on it, but if you are one of these guys who beats his wife, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. What you are doing is evil, and the fact that you are contributing to our community being stereotyped by domestic violence is despicable. If you want my opinion you should be begging her forgiveness, preferably in public.
While the primary symptom of gender inequality is the denial of rights, specifically those guaranteed to women by Islam, the primary problem is a lack of empathy. Although many people mistakenly believe them to be synonymous, empathy and sympathy have very distinct meanings. While sympathy connotes a kind of pity or compassion for a person, it does not mean you really understand what it is like to be in their situation. Empathy is a level above that, where you are actually capable of vicariously feeling what the other person is feeling. To make it easy to remember, sympathy is feeling for someone, empathy is feeling with someone. For most people, actual empathy is very difficult to achieve without having some measure of similar experience. I propose the following to rectify that deficiency.
If your local mosque is like most mosques, men and women pray in separate rooms. Do not assume for a moment that this wall of separation is from the Sunnah of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Abu Hurairah reported that the Messenger of Allah said:
“The best rows for men are the first rows, and the worst ones the last ones, and the best rows for women are the last ones and the worst ones for them are the first ones.” (Sahih Muslim 4:881)
The only way this Hadith makes any sense is if men and women are praying in the same room. The walls we place between men and women are completely inappropriate; it is an innovation and an injustice. If you do not want to take my word for it, let Shaikh Imran Hosein explain it:
But I digress; we have to deal with reality before we can implement the Sunnah. The reality is that men and women pray in separate rooms in most mosques, and in the vast majority of mosques, women have much poorer facilities than men. I sympathize with my sisters, wallahi, I do. But I would rather empathize, and if my brothers will join me, insha’Allah I have an idea how.
I imagine an event where the men sit in the women’s room and the women sit in the men’s room. An event where women may go to the mosque and worship in huge halls while men are crowded together into back rooms. An event where women can sit and read Qur’an or make dhikr in peace, while men contend with hyperactive children and screaming babies.
I imagine an event where the most knowledgeable woman in the community ascends the membar and delivers a lecture on the rights of women in Islam while men sit behind the wall and listen through an intermittent sound system; an event where sisters gather around free to voice their questions, and their concerns while the men pass their questions forward on hand-written notes.
I imagine an event where women sit around and sip tea and socialize while men prepare the meal.
Obviously some considerations must be taken into account. Some provisions must be made to assure that valid congregational prayers can be made. Also, I strongly recommend that the women of the community be the primary organizers of such an event to ensure that the unique concerns in your community are expressed. I’m sure there are plenty of issues that women have no idea are of concern to our sisters. And finally, I think a roundtable discussion at the end of the event, when everyone can discuss their experience together, is crucial to the successful achievement of empathy.
Now, I’m sure there are male readers who are made very uncomfortable by this suggestion. But realize, the degree to which you are uneasy is exactly the degree to which there is injustice to the women in your community. The degree to which you would object to this experience for one day is exactly the degree to which the women in your community object to this treatment every day. Even if such an event never takes place, if you examine your emotional reaction to the suggestion, you’ll have some idea how your sisters feel. And even though it may be uncomfortable in the short term, in the long term if we can have more empathy for one another, we will be more inclined to fulfill each other’s rights, and we will live with greater peace and tranquility for all involved.
Davi Barker is a California-based writer. An unedited version of this article previously appeared at Examiner.com