This is another story from “And God Knows the Soldiers” by abou el-Fadl.
I recall that in one of the Islamic centres in the United States a fellow was invited to lecture to the congregation. The men were separated from the women with a wall. Before commencing his lecture, the fellow noticed that the door separating the women’s quarter from the men’s was open. Two women were in that quarter and unable to hear the lecture, so they opened the door and sat behind it so that they would not be visible to the men. Nevertheless, the lecturer insisted that the door be closed in order to foreclose any possibility of sexual enticement (fitnah).
It is highly unlikely that this lecturer was sexually aroused, or that he thought that he might be aroused, by the idea of 2 veiled women sitting behind an open door. Nonetheless, sexual enticement was not the issue – even these men are not so weak. The issue was an exercise of power to acquire authenticity and legitimacy according to the paradigms that puritanism sets as pertinent and relevant.
Put differently, the lecturer, by making this statement, proved his impeccable legitimacy because he demonstrated vigilance in guarding the honour and modesty of women. But, of course, he gained this legitimacy at the expense of women. Nonetheless, tormenting Muslim women is a low-cost proposition – Muslim women are like the proverbial punching bag upon which men can prove their power and worth.
This is the crucial point: it did not matter what legal evidence the lecturer is able or unable to offer in support of his closed-door policy. No one thought of asking about the legal basis for his determination, as if there were an assumption at work that this type of position is presumptively Islamic.
Imagine if the speaker had commenced his talk inviting the women in the secluded quarters to come forward and take the empty seats so that they might better hear the lecture. Having made this suggestion myself several times, I am comfortable in surmising that 1) the rest of the evening will be taken up by arguments about the legality of the suggestion, 2) women will play a very minor role in the debate, if at all, and 3) textual evidence that challenges the puritan paradigm will be waved away as the spin of a spin master.
So, what do you guys think of this story?
And do you think that he is right – that if the lecturer had asked for the opposite of what he did, there would have been an uproar?