Story about Women in Mosques

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?


27 thoughts on “Story about Women in Mosques

  1. I find that “ruling” so ridiculous. It’s the same as me sitting in my own bedroom and having the door open and saying: “I have to close this door because even though there is no man in the house, I still have to guard my modesty”. I mean honestly. This goes beyond human beings and sexual control. It seems to me to be some form of exhibiting power, of making those women seem “less than” because they “dared” to open a door to hear someone speak.

    What really annoys me is how these “teachers” get away with actions like this. Where in the Sunnah is this act supported? In Shia Islam, we have something called taqleed where we choose a scholar (based on research etc) and then use his rulings on really small things (e.g. what’s awrah, etc). My “marja” is one of the more conservative ones but *even he* says there is NO need for a barrier such as that! IMO, if a man as conservative as him (who happens to be the Supreme Leader of Iran) is saying that barriers like that are not needed then what on earth is this guy doing? Where are his rulings coming from? It’s a lecture! If his justification is that people can’t control themselves at an *Islamic lecture in a mosque* then maybe he should change the topic of his lectures.

    As to your second question… of course 😉 Anyone who goes against the grain will always be questioned but if you just stay with the pack no one seems to care what you say. Whatever happened to taking *everything* with a grain of salt anyway?

    • That’s exactly the problem – no one asked him where he got his ruling from, because rulings like that are seen to be “Islamic” without question! Whereas a ruling letting a woman sit next to a man in a mosque is seen as “unIslamic”, even if there is historical proof that it has happened before.

      “Anyone who goes against the grain will always be questioned but if you just stay with the pack no one seems to care what you say.” I think you’ve nailed the problem with Muslims today :/ Sad.

  2. Oops. I meant I myself use marjas for nitty gritty things like specific body parts being awrah or congregational prayer issues (lol) not small things. Hope that makes sense!

      • Umm… I more so compared what he said to what other marjas said and chose based on what I thought was right. That saying, I don’t think that he is the *best* marja out there (check out Ali Sistani, his rulings are fantastic) *but* he is always clear in terms of things that could be problematic for us, or things that we should avoid but that we don’t have to, if that makes sense? Like he always points out the bad things that *could* happen as well as the real ruling on a matter, so we can make an informed decision. That’s how it seems to me anyway 🙂

  3. wow. I hate when this kind of thing happens its so against what the prophet would have done.

    I think it depends on the age group and ethnicity of the group listening to the lecture. Depending on where you are from depends a lot on how much this might offend you. Different cultures teach different things and certain cultures put more emphasis on segregation than others. Same with age. A group of 20 somethings are less likely to be offended than a group in their 40-60s. Its a lot about what generation you grew up with and what you learned within that generation. Alhumdililah the young men in their 20s here in America seem very big on trying to blur the line a little between the women and the men. I go to a lecture every Friday and we all sit on the men’s side, the men make one half of the circle, the women the other. And we have absolutely no issues. I’ve even been to events where we are completely mixed together, men sitting right next to women. And no one so much as complained. But again, young crowds.

    I like this guy. I think he is one of the men you told me to take a look at for new ideas on Islam ya? 🙂

    • Yes, I think age really matters. There is a mosque here in Holland, in Amsterdam, that is not segregated, and it is usually used by younger Muslims. It is known as a liberal mosque, and I really need to check it out soon.

      And yes, I did recommend abou el-Fadl…I think you’ll love him! He needs FBI protection, which says a lot about Muslims today. Seriously :/

  4. I find this fellow’s act ridiculous, because:

    1. The women had to open the door because they could NOT hear the lecture.
    2. They were careful to sit behind the door so that they are not visible to the men.

    So what’s the problem?

    I’ve attended a few Islamic lectures here in the UAE, where men and women sit in one room, albeit separately. Entrance/Exit are separate too. But women are there, in that same room, and participating in the Q&A that followed. And there never was a problem.

    • There are also lots of gatherings where men and women sit next to each other, without any problem. I don’t get why Muslims turn it into such a big thing, thus creating sexual tension that may not have even been there before.
      If people in the West can interact normally (and most can, despite the stereotypes of many Muslims), then why can’t Muslims? Come on, I don’t need to be in an all-girls classroom to be able to focus.
      There are reports that the first mosque in Madinah was not segregated. So why are the Masjid al-Haram and Masjid al-Nabawi segregated today? And in the one in Madinah there is an actual wall…strange.

      However, despite all of that, even if one does believe in segregation in Islam, the fact that the women were sitting behind the door, like you said, should have made everything okay.

  5. That is RIDICULOUS. It’s STUPID. The reaction just makes him even more powerful though. People sit and let it happen! About it causing an uproar, I guess it depends on the congregation. In that one, I’m sure it would. These people don’t care if women get oppressed, and the women are too timid to do anything about it.

    I think that it would not have been the biggest deal at my mosque for the opposite to be suggested. They are not overly liberal at the mosque, but they are used to liberal thoughts. Women and men enter from the same door and there are women in the mosque who enter not wearing hijab and just put it on for the prayer itself. It’s not shocking and they are welcome. There has been a meeting where we were all on the same side of the barrier, but with the women more in the back. It worked fine! No one made an uproar over it. And in the meeting some women voiced their opinions about our section being too small and all this.

    If the people in the congregation can accept more open views, then everything can work out I think.

    • “Women and men enter from the same door and there are women in the mosque who enter not wearing hijab and just put it on for the prayer itself. It’s not shocking and they are welcome.”

      The fact that we have to mention things like these are be happy that they happen shows the bad state Islam is in today. It should never have been shocking to do those things, yet I’m sure in many mosques it is :S

      It’s good you have found a mosque that suits your views though, I think that can be difficult :S

  6. I hang out with Malaysian Muslims, but at the Mosque it is mostly middle eastern immigrants who are the Imams and the majority who attend the Mosque…

    In the Mosque I once attended when I first converted, the women were completely separated from the men, and had to enter through the back of the Mosque.. Speakers were set up in the room so the women could hear the Imam.. There was no door to the men’s side, only a door to leave out of the back of the Mosque. We were not allowed to go in through the front.. If you want to talk about segregation of the Mosques in America, I have plenty of stories for you..
    This Mosque was for the University, so it was highly educated people, that makes no difference.

    None of my Malaysian female friends attended this Mosque. When I asked why they were shy about answering, merely saying they were too busy, but I think I see why they chose not to attend. When we have gatherings with Malaysians, everyone hangs out together. It is only at the Mosque that I have witnessed this harsh segregation.

    I completely agree with this author, and I think I want to check out this book..

    Even when I tried to return a book to the men’s side I was looked at like I was insane for thinking I could do something like that..

    I refuse to participate in segregation, so I just don’t go. Muslim men, from certain cultures, need to own up to what they are doing, and stop hiding behind religion.

    • That’s crazy. And I think it is the same for Egyptians – many are not at all into segregation! Yet in the West Muslims really cling to it like it’s an integral part of Islam.

      Abou el-Fadl talks about that, how American Muslims are actually not liberal at all, which is what you’d expect. Interesting!

    • That’s the same here in this area – on the eastside (Seattle) the women’s section is upstairs, different entrance and different room. In the one in Kent, the women are in a separate building altogether. For the one in Tacoma the women have a different entrance, and the women’s section is walled off from the men’s. I have never entered a mosque in the “front door” here in the US or Canada.

  7. My first thought that yes it is absolutely true that if the speaker would have done the opposite there might have been an uproar. However, thinking about it again, this may not necessarily be true. People en masse tend to be weak as individuals and no one wants to be the one to speak up. Yes, if this was a conservative masjid in general, and the author doesn’t say it was, there may have been an uproar in the opposite situation.

    In my own masjid, women sometimes sit in the men’s section for smaller lectures. I don’t recall any uproar over this.

    In my masjid the dominant culture is Arabic, with Pakistani/Indian in a close second, with a healthy spattering of American, African, and Asian cultures thrown in for a good mix. Our imam is Yemeni, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a liberal, compared to many Imams he definitely isn’t conservative.

    In our masjid, women have a balcony area for jumuah prayer, and a small room off the side of the men’s section for women with small children enclosed in glass. While I would definitely prefer to see no barrier, in truth, the women have as much space as the men and it’s just as nice. It definitely doesn’t give you the feeling that you are closed off like in an entirely seperate room. I refuse to go to the other main masjid in our area because of this. I mean what’s the point?

    The other masjid in town is across the street from the university and is primarily frequented by Indian and Pakistani students. It is much more conservative and not woman friendly at all in my opionion. At least in this area, I find Desi’s to be much more fanatical about segregation. I was once shuttled into a bedroom at a Bangladeshi get together, even thought the living room was completely free as all the men were downstairs. How rude this is in my own culture. Although my hosts were quite sweet, I didn’t enjoy myself at all and mostly found myself playing awkwardly with the children or staring at the walls.

    The Muslim community in the US is quite bipolar about gender and segregation. On one hand we go out into the workplace and into the public sphere and interact with members of the opposite sex quite easily and without a second thought. However, among ourselves, we become quite skittish about even being seen or heard by the opposite gender. Women are more guilty of this than men in my opinion.

    • What you said about the US Muslim community being bipolar is so interesting! Why impose segregation in the private sphere but be okay with mixing in the public sphere? Or is it that they are not okay with it in the public sphere but are forced to do it?

      Growing up in mixed settings makes it impossible for me to imagine living the rest of my life segregated. It just seems unnatural to me, although to many it probably seems natural.

      Here in Holland some Islamic schools segregate the kids from a very young age, which is a big problem because when they graduate they are obviously going to have to work, interact, and move in mixed circles…this is Holland, not Saudi. So it seems like they are at a disadvantage because of this policy.

    • Me too. I see a lot of Muslim women supporting things that oppress women in general. It’s like that with female circumcision in Egypt, where it is usually done by a woman to her daughter/granddaughter. Same with the veil – it is often veiled women who put a lot of pressure on unveiled women (not all veiled women do this, but there are definitely many out there).

  8. Unfortunately scenarios such as the story above are not isolated incidences. The story also highlights the need for education among Muslims. The more we know, both in terms of secular education and religious knowledge, the less likely we are to put up with absurdity such as demonstrated by the speaker closing the door on the women.

    As far as an uproar, I think that depends on where you are. I’ve been to lectures and events at universities and Islamic centers where no one would have flinched if the sisters had kept the door open or even moved into the same room as the men if seats were open. I’ve also been to events where this would have caused a riot. There is a masjid a few hours from me where some of the more “conservative” Muslims got together and effectively fired the Imam because he was “too” Western.

    One thing, that I don’t think a lot of people have acknowledged, is the amount of cultural and peer pressure to stay silent on subjects such as this for both women and men. I can say first hand that it dictates almost your every action and thought and voicing any type opposition can make life miserable to the point that you just go numb so you don’t go crazy.

    • I completely agree! Social and peer pressure in Muslim communities is really intense! I think women feel it especially with regards to hijab. It definitely does have the power to dictate your every word and action, unfortunately. Doing things for your community is not the same as doing them for your God.

    • Bahlool, thanks for that link! Very interesting article.

      “There clearly was not a barrier between men and women, as women could report seeing both the imam and the men praying, with a “wall” of boys and girls praying in between the genders. Women also reported that they socialized, weaved, and held other community functions in the main prayer area, with the full knowledge (and hence permission) of both the Prophet and his immediate successor Abu Bakr.”

      I also like how they pointed out that the problems of segregation began with ‘Umar, and how ‘Umar’s wife still continued to go to the mosque. I never knew that Aisha also discouraged women from praying in mosques!! Interesting!

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