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Mosques need to be more inclusive of Muslim women. We should encourage our sisters to be leaders in our communities, as Imams, scholars, educators, directors, activists, artists, and so on. These ideas do not stem from “Western liberalism” or “Western decadence,” but rather these values of gender equality and inclusiveness are rooted in Islam. If we do not actively oppose the sexism and misogyny in our communities, they will become permanent features of the practice of our faith.
The case against partition
If we take a moment to step out of our modern day communities and step into seventh century mosques, we will find that the norms and etiquette which guided these institutions were far more open and inclusive towards women than the standards of today. There is a great deal of evidence from the Hadith to suggest that barriers between male and female mosque attendees did not exist during the time of the Prophet. For example, a hadith narrated by Ibn Abbas, the paternal cousin of the Prophet, indicates that a woman used to pray directly behind the Prophet while he led his congregation in prayer. Muslim feminist and filmmaker, Zarqa Nawaz, points out in her documentary film, “Me and the Mosque,” that women often spoke up during mosque lectures and even refuted the speaker if they felt he was incorrect. For example, after the Prophet’s death, a woman challenged the Caliph himself, ‘Umar bin Khattab, by citing the Qur’an after Umar tried to reduce the mahr, a monetary gift a man gives to a woman before marriage. Ironically, it was ‘Umar who was ultimately responsible for relegating women to separate rooms in the mosque.
Many turn to the concept of modesty to justify the separation of men and women in the mosque; the argument goes that if women lead a mixed congregation in prayer, stand before the audience and give a lecture or pray in the same space as their male counterparts, their voice and presence will distract or possibly seduce men. While I strongly value the teachings of modesty in Islam, I posit that the manner in which most mosques practice segregation actually has a counter productive effect—it sexualizes gender relationships.
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. Why? Because men could be sexually attracted to women’s bodies and this will interfere with their 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.
While our communities spend a considerable amount of time worrying about the seductive effect a woman’s voice, body or presence may have on a male worshipper, we disregard, or at least downplay, the attraction a man’s voice or appearance may hold for a woman. During my freshman year in college, I can recall overhearing Muslim girls raving about how beautifully a Muslim man was reciting the Qur’an during prayer–and by their smiles and the tone of their voices it was clear that there was more to it than an innocent appreciation of this man’s spirituality and devotion. Some men (and women) claim that men are inherently weaker when it comes to keeping their gaze lowered and their desires in check. Somehow, when I see a Muslim woman swooning over, say, nasheed artist, Sami Yusuf, I find this claim hard to swallow. After all, a nasheed is a song in praise of Allah and the Prophet so it is not as though Sami Yusuf is singing in the same genre as Justin Timberlake!
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 surrounding the event. The Muslim protesters held inflammatory signs reading, “Mixed congregation today, hell-fire tomorrow,” and one of the dissenters, a young Muslim man, screamed that Amina Wadud was 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 garnered 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. I believe these reactions reveal an underlying fear of empowered Muslim women. 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. Many men, whether they’re conscious of it or not, do not want to give up their position of power and control and therefore resort to treating Islam as a rigid, monolithic faith. When women introduce new ideas into the mix of Islamic thought, interpretation and practice, they are condemned as “flouting” Islamic tradition.
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” and yet we can not listen to a Muslim woman deliver a khutbah? Are we really taught 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 inferior to men in our places of worship?
Mosques need to be more inclusive of Muslim women. We should encourage our sisters to be leaders in our communities, as Imams, scholars, educators, directors, activists, artists, and so on. These ideas do not stem from “Western liberalism” or “Western decadence,” but rather these values of gender equality and inclusiveness are rooted in Islam. 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 designed to accommodate Muslims who have more conservative views or want privacy.
If a Muslim woman leads the prayer or gives a khutbah, we should be able to see her as a spiritual, rather than a sexual being. If a man has sexual thoughts going into the Mosque, nothing — not even a physical barrier — is going to curb his sexual thoughts or desires unless he restrains himself. If we do not actively oppose the sexism and misogyny in our communities, it will persist and only move one step closer to becoming a permanent feature of the practice of our faith.
“Verily, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in their hearts” – Qur’an 13:11.
For Part 1 of this series, click here.
Jehanzeb Dar is a Pakistani Muslim-American undergrad student and independent filmmaker. He currently blogs at Muslim Reverie, where he critiques media, writes poetry, and reflects on spirituality. This article was first published on AltMuslimah on November 18, 2009.
(Photo Credit: Rene Passet)