The issue of separate rooms between men and women in the mosque has troubled me for quite some time. Actually, I was quite surprised the first time I went to a mosque (armed already with my studies of the Qur’an and Hadith including the descriptions of women praying behind the men, seeking to convert to Islam) to find the man who opened the door embarassedly directing me to the basement for the women’s area. Little did I realize then how prevalent this has become! Recently, I learned that the closest mosque to me is beginning renovations to expand and improve the facilities. I was saddened to read that the separated spaces would continue. After feeling myself quite alone in my thoughts on this for many years, I have recently read several well-reasoned and well written articles on the problem, which is apparently quite widespread. Among my inspirations, Wood Turtle’s heartbreaking account of stopping by a separated mosque with her husband and daughter. Nahida’s refreshing repeated trumpet calls for women’s rights. And a very welcome man’s perspective from Mezba. Plus several other recent articles such as this one a friend passed along to me and this video which was ironically re-posted by the very mosque I’m addressing. But this issue is not limited to my nearest mosque. In fact I have never in my life been to an unsegregated mosque where men and women prayed in the same room as in the sunnah. Thus I am posting this, before I even send it, as an open letter. I am also looking for both feedback and input, before I send this letter, because I must send this letter. Perhaps more of us must send our own equivalent of this letter. It is time for me to stop complaining about the state of affairs and do something about it. If not me, who? If not now, when? If I want things to get better, I have to do something about it.
“Whoever among you sees an evil act, let him change it with his hand (by taking action); if he cannot, then with his tongue (by speaking out); and if he cannot, then with his heart (by at least hating it and regarding it as evil) – but that is the weakest of faith.” (Muslim)
Wabisa bin Mabad said: I came to the messenger of Allah and he said: “You have come to ask about righteousness ?” I said:” Yes.” He said: “Consult your heart. Righteousness is that about which the soul feels tranquil and the heart feels tranquil, and wrongdoing is that which wavers in the soul and moves to and from in the breast even though people again and again have given you their legal opinion [in its favor].”(An-Nawawi’s 40 Hadith Qudsi)
I have received and read your emails recently about the planned expansion for the ___ Masjid. I am very happy to hear that there are going to be improvements made and space added. But there is one important issue that it is high time to address in this expansion. The ___ Masjid is, and based on the letter describing improvements with added prayer space for both men and women, will continue after renovations to be: segregated by gender.
Segregating men and women into separate rooms for prayer is not the sunnah of the prophet Mohammed, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. It is an innovation added after the completion of our religion. And it is not, as some have argued, beneficial to our ummah, rather it leads to further division and corruption of our ummah.
It is clear from numerous hadiths that prayer was not separated into two rooms in the time of Mohammed (pbuh) as it is in our masjid and so many other “modern” mosques. They were not separated with a curtain as is used in some other locations. They did not have the men upstairs and the women downstairs. They did not have the men and women side by side with a rope in between, as we have seen at Eid! I have seen all of these things, but I have not seen a masjid, here in the US, following the sunnah of the prophet Mohammed with the men in front and the women behind, in one room, without a division. This segregation by gender is not in the tradition of our prophet, it is in the tradition of the division and separation of women which was a problem amongst the people before Islam and continues to be a problem hundreds of years after we are supposed to have learned its message, despite the many instructions in Islam which attempt to correct this behavior. In Saudi Arabia, one speaker mentioned recently, the extreme segregation is prevalent not only in the masjids but everywhere in society. EXCEPT in the mosque in Mecca, for Hajj. Surely if this were imposed there would be too much outcry because such separation is against the sunnah of the prophet Mohammed in every tradition. So why are we continuing and reinstating this here? This video, by the way, was posted by ___ Masjid’s Facebook page! Can we not learn something from it?
At the time of the prophet, the prayer took place in one large area with both men and women attending. The men formed the first rows and the women formed the rows behind them. The prophet said “The best of you of the men are the ones in the front, and the best of the women are the ones in the back.” This does not even apply in the separated rooms scenario, so who are the best and worst then? The separated rooms removes the reward of those who hasten to the front or back for this reward. Some people who support the separated rooms bring the verse where the prophet Mohammed told a woman that the best place for her prayer is at home. This leaves out several important caveats. For one thing, he specifically forbade anyone preventing women from going to the mosque, on numerous occasions. Even he did not prevent it with his own wives. Much like the hadith where it says the front rows are best for the men, and the last rows are best for the women, it does not mean those in the other rows should not bother! No matter how many rows there are, there will always be first and last rows.
My objection, I would like to specify, is not in the fact of having an overflow room that is usually used for something else to be an expanded prayer area when the main room is full. Nor that there should not be separate rooms for classes, for retiring to if privacy is needed for some purpose, and so on. The objection is that there is one room for women and one room for men. In light of the improvements planned for ___ , I will not go into the fact that in most mosques, the men’s room is of considerably better standards and larger, than the women’s room. There should not be two prayer rooms to begin with, to say one is better and one is not. There should be one shared room, the upkeep of which falls to the shared ummah, the improvements of which can be enjoyed by both men and women.
The fact that women are encouraged to attend prayer (with both men and women present in the same area, as at the time of the prophet) is further reiterated at Eid time, in the hadith where one woman lacks an outer garment to attend, the prophet Mohammed says that she should borrow one and attend anyway so she may see the gathering of the muslims. The gathering of the muslims, men, and women, is important enough to bring everyone together, in fact even women who are not able to pray at that time. Note there is no evidence whatsoever that the Eid prayer at the time of the prophet was segregated by a rope or anything else, or set up side by side instead of with women praying directly behind the men, but this is an issue that goes beyond the current setup at ___ , since Eid prayers are not offered there.
Because certainly, the only benefit of attending the mosque is not just offering prayers, for those who say that it’s not necessary for women to attend because praying in the mosque is not obligatory on them. The mosque is the center of the muslim community. EVEN MORE SO in our community here because most of the people in this part of the country are not muslim. If the muslims cannot gather at the mosque, where can they gather? Where can they find community leaders? Where can they discuss issues affecting the ummah, if not at the masjid? And how can this discussion either incorporate viewpoints of the entire ummah or benefit the entire ummah when only the male half of it is involved in the discussion?
Listening to the imam lecture or discuss over the microphone in a closed-off room is not participating. There is no opportunity for feedback or interaction amongst the community. In the time of the prophet, there were not two communities: the female muslim community and the male muslim community. There was ONE muslim community, one ummah. But here, in today’s world, reinforced at ___ Masjid, it seems we have two communities, the male muslim community, and the female muslim community, with no discourse between them.
In the prophet’s mosque, he gave the instruction that if the imam made any mistake in the prayer, and a follower noted it, a man should say subhanAllah, and the woman should clap, to indicate the mistake. How can this sunnah be applied in the separated room scenario?
The prophet told the women praying, they should not raise their heads from the ground until the men raised their heads from the ground, in prayer, presumably so they would not see the awrah of the men. How can this play out in the separate rooms? Now do not say that it is better in separate rooms because there is no chance of seeing the awrah of the other person. It would have been very easy for the prophet Mohammed to say, so that no woman should accidentally look at the awrah of the row in front, put a curtain or wall between. But he did NOT say that. Why are we assuming in today’s world we know better?
He indicated in the prayer also that we must follow the imam. Followers must not place their head on the ground before the imam, and should not raise it up before the imam, and so forth. How, in a separate room, over a crackly microphone, can this sunnah be observed? There is very little connection with the imam at all. Yes, it is sometimes possible to follow by voice alone, just as a blind person may follow the prayer. But why, are the women relegated to praying blind when they could follow the sunnah and pray behind the men, behind the imam?
The prophet Mohammed said, to both men and women, pray as you have seen me praying. In the absence of the prophet, let no woman try to learn from the imam today, because there is no way to see how he is praying. Also, please do not say that following the other women in prayer is sufficient. To begin with, the first woman still has the same issue that the imam is not visible to follow appropriately. Secondly, female attendance is so low (possibly due to discouraging lack of ability to actually participate) that at some prayer times I have found no other women. There always must be the first. Hopefully it is not a person in need of guidance or help, since there will be no one accessible to give it.
The prophet used to address both men and women in his khutbah. The women and men both used to ask questions, and hear the answers. This allowed discourse in the community. To further assist the women, he also held separate sessions to address their questions with them. Not only are there no separate sessions to address the concerns that women might have and be reluctant to voice in front of the entire male community (which yes, is legitimate) but there is no opportunity for them to participate in the general community with any type of question or feedback.
The prophet Mohammed was not the only one who had discussions with women. It was also common for other men to come and ask questions of his wives, as mentioned in the verse that if anyone had to ask a question of the prophet’s wife, he should ask from behind a screen. This was specific to asking the prophet’s wives, when visiting them, in their homes! Note that the prophet’s wives also attended the mosque without separation, despite this. There are other hadiths indicating mixed conversations of both women and men about islamic matters, this was not limited to the masjid. In fact gender segregation did not extend outside the masjid either, women and men attended markets and purchased items from each other, fought side by side, worked side by side. So why, in our current day, do we have this segregation within the mosque?
The fact of the matter is, life outside the mosque goes on unsegregated as usual, albeit with a mixture of muslims and non-muslims, at work, at school, at play, at the shop. Most of those interaction, because of the makeup of our community, are with non-muslims. As a result since there is absolutely NO interaction between men and women at the masjid, this becomes natural amongst the youth. Why should a young man or a young woman feel comfortable interacting with a young muslim of the opposite sex, when they are prevented from doing so at the natural gathering place of the muslims? They interact freely or not in every other avenue of life with non-muslims, so it is natural this is the way they will begin to feel comfortable. Not only are we tieing the hands of the community by preventing any input from men or women from reaching the other side of the mosque, but we are also preventing our young people from learning how to properly treat the opposite sex in Islam. Isolating a person from the opposite sex is not a protection, it is doing them an injury. Especially when they are not really isolated from the opposite sex, they are only isolated from other muslims of the opposite sex, who they have no idea how to act around except that they apparently may not speak to them or pray in the same area, contrary to our prophet Mohammed’s example. With non-muslims, interaction is free. This is completely contrary to how we should be raising our children. They should grow up knowing who the members of the opposite sex in their community are, not the least for identifying future marriageable partners and learning the proper etiquette and respect for treating a wife or husband!
Segregating the muslim community also extends to segregating the family unit. How appropriate is it that a family cannot attend the masjid and pray together or see each other? What about muslims who are not part of a family unit? The forgotten ones of the muslim ummah especially in this country seem to be the single women. NOT EVERY woman has a family speaking for her/taking care of her. NOT EVERY woman is married! there are muslim women on their own, speaking for themselves, yet when it comes to interacting with the community, it seems to be assumed that they will operate through their husband or muslim family. Please let us lay to rest the antiquated notion that every woman has a husband or father or brother speaking for her. This was NOT the case in the time of the prophet Mohammed and it is not the case now. There are women who are unmarried and whose family lives far away. Or, their parents have passed away and they do not have any children. There are women who may have family, but their family is not muslim and has no interaction nor desire to interact with the muslim community! There are women who are widows and left without any tie to the community if their only tie is through their husband. There are divorced women with children, raising their sons without any male mentor or positive role model in Islam, because of this separation. There are SINGLE women with children (they do exist) who have found Islam, but have not found any support in the community, let along a chance of being married when there is no contact with the entire male half of the ummah.
It is not only the lack of contact in the masjid that causes problems in this avenue, but what results from it. Male leadership that does not take into account the problems and issues facing women in the community. A standard that separates brother from sister, man from wife, when it comes to religion, instead of binding them together as in fact the most concrete unit our ummah can build on. Services that are denied sisters because of their lack of a male counterpart to speak up for them in a room where they have no voice. I speak from personal experience of myself, and other women, in this very community, where we are unfortunately isolated by the fact of being women. The issue is not limited to our community, it is widespread. But it IS present in our community, we are not immune, the segregation practices of ___ Masjid and other area masjids only perpetuate the problem. This is NOT the goal of Islam or the message of Islam. Islam repeatedly calls out and addresses the needs of women and the oppression of women by men which has played out repeatedly in history, from the beginning of recorded history. Islam does not try to pretend this does not exist, which it does, in every society, but instead targets it and corrects it, if only we followed the message.
Why do we have instructions in the Qur’an and hadiths like lowering the gaze from each other, not stamping the feet to draw attention to hidden adornments, covering our bodies, speaking in a non-enticing way, not wearing perfumes to draw attention, traveling with protection (assuming you even have a wali!) and treating men or women with kindness and respect? Why do we have admonitions to look away after the first glance, to not look at the awrah while praying, for the women to exit before the men, when ALL THIS COULD BE SOLVED by never having men or women interact with each other (except when against all odds they somehow meet anyway and marry)? Because that is NOT a solution, that is a fallacy that is damaging to our community. By making that the solution, you are ignoring the fact that Allah did NOT make that the solution, but gave us instructions on how to deal with each other instead. Men and Women are the two halves of the ummah, they serve as balance and counter balance to each other, their voices must be heard against each other. Mohammed (pbuh) heard the objections of the women against the men’s behavior, and he heard the objections of the men against the women’s behavior, and those objections are very much like the same complaints we hear today about the behavior of the opposite sex. He did not act by erecting separate rooms in the prayer space! Instead, we have guidelines and rules for how to treat each other properly, rules that are never applied when we never meet.
A woman alone in this community has nowhere to turn for help from any man in the community, be it an imam, a wali to stand in for her, a counselor to help mediate a problem with her husband if she IS married, a scholar to ask questions of, any of these things, without the accompaniment of a husband (or other male muslim family member). I know, because I have tried, and I know other sisters who have tried and found nothing. I do not blame ___ Masjid for this but I do blame the separation that has been created between men and women throughout our muslim community to the point that interaction between the sexes is non-functional except in limited venues outside the mosque. And this is if you can even find those venues, as a practical matter a muslim man outside the mosque blends almost seamlessly into the non-muslim community, if he so chooses, unlike the muslim woman (at least in hijab).
This is a problem that ___ Masjid could address, by starting to follow this aspect of the sunnah, by bringing our community together again.
There is another aspect to the segregation that is little discussed, and that is our children. Creating a women’s and men’s section of the mosque, in effect, means creating a “women and children” and men’s section of the mosque. Yes, sometimes a child may go into the other room or graduate to attending with his father, but other than that, the women’s section is also usually the children’s section.
I have already discussed the damaging effect of the segregation on teenagers, at a time when it is most critical to learn appropriate behaviors to the opposite sex, and also a time, though we don’t think of it much in today’s world, to be thinking about marriage, because they are already thinking about the things that go with marriage, and in the absence of potential muslim partners that they have ever met, it is about the non-muslims they interact with daily, who are only too happy to become a girlfriend or boyfriend. But teenagers are already graduated to praying in separate rooms with the appropriate sex.
What about the younger children? It is the example of the prophet Mohammed that children were allowed in the mosque, I would even say encouraged due to the fact that he allowed children to climb on him, whilst he was leading the prayer! How different is this from the behavior today which relegates children to the back room with the women, where sadly most of them neither attempt to pray or show any interest in the prayer at all, even at the age where they should begin to learn. How different would the reaction be of a young child who grew up watching the imam pray, who played beside him and was indulged by this, who saw the eye of his father watching him if he got disruptive, who saw the family and the entire ummah come together as one, who actually participated in the prayer and was welcomed? I routinely hear and read about those who complain about children running undisciplined and making noise in the mosque. Perhaps this is also a factor in wanting to have a separate room to keep women and children’s noise out of the way! My personal experience has more often been of groups of children apathetic and entirely uninterested in the prayers.
Either way, this is NOT the way to deal with this situation in Islam, to shut women and children in a closet so the men don’t get distracted. We must deal with any issues of this sort as a whole, and personally I think including the men and the imam in the room would be a start to begin with of restoring some amount of discipline and desire in the children to follow along. Even if there are children crawling through the rows, this is not a “women’s problem” to deal with alone, the prophet Mohammed held his grandchildren while praying, he allowed the children to come there. How else will they integrate Islam in their hearts and desire to follow, without these examples?
My son has never seen an imam praying, except from the far side of the room (very far, separated by ropes and side by side unlike the sunnah) unintelligible over a loud microphone, at Eid. He has never watched men come together and pray or seen any man he could relate to demonstrating not only how to pray and follow Islam but how to treat and interact with women in a religious setting, except to avoid them altogether! I know exactly what this is teaching him, but without the help of the male community, I am powerless to do anything about it. Nor will I be pushing him alone at the age of 7 into the unknown male side of the mosque to fend for himself! This is not community. Nor is the problem limited to male children. Perhaps even more, a female child should have the example of the men of her community how to treat women, of the proper behavior between girls and boys. It is equally important that a girl see how men in her religion treat women with respect and give them their rights, including the rights to full access to the mosque and interaction as a member of the community. How can I tell a girl how Islam grants her these rights and respect and protection, when our local example of Islam as embodied in the mosque is distant and separate, with men a closed off presence not seen past the mosque parking lot, unlike the welcoming non-muslim community which greets her open-armed? How can I explain why the ummah described in the hadiths doesn’t actually play out here, and rather, the muslim community seems to actively work against the prophet’s example of unity? To a young girl growing up, and learning she is different from the non-muslim community, my explanation of Islam from the Qur’an and hadiths is remote from what she sees in her own community and deals with day-to-day, and it is not a positive comparison.
Driving a wedge between men and women of the ummah is also driving a wedge between the boys and girls of the ummah who are born here. This is their inheritance. It is up to them to keep Islam going in the future and keep the ummah strong and united, but instead it is being splintered by this segregational behavior. Do not say it is unnecessary for women to participate in these aspects of the masjid, would you agree if I relegated all men under the age of 25 to one room and told them their elders would be handling all discussion from now on, and they could listen in? Would they consider this unfair? How is the segregation of women any more fair? It does not bear up under the sunnah and example of the prophet into an inclusive community. It is a not a “good bidah” either, if there is such a thing, because it causes division and further unfairness in the community and does not give women the same access to Islamic resources.
I am aware there are those in the community, BOTH men and women, who support the segregation. This is clear and in fact throughout many muslim communities this segregation has become far more prevalent than it used to be, if you were to look back a few generations. In response I say, we are not tailoring Islam based off the whims of people, Islam is very clear and Allah knows well what the whims of people are and has given us guidelines in accordance with that. As I mentioned earlier, it would have been an easy thing in the Quran or an instruction from Mohammed (pbuh) to set people up in separate rooms, but he did NOT do so. This should be enough reason that we should not take people’s current trends or desires as a reason to impose this innovation! Those who support segregation often also refer to Aisha’s quote that “if Mohammed had still been alive, he would have prevented women from going to the mosque.” This brings up a few points. First of all, it reiterates that he did NOT prevent women from doing so, even when he recommended to some of them praying in the house. Secondly, it makes it clear that the “corruption” that people claim makes this necessary in modern times was still there within Aisha’s lifetime. Regardless of the century the general impression always seems to be that society is going to pieces and morality is going downhill. Be that as it may, there are numerous references in the Qur’an and hadiths which are the exact same issues people complain about today, including drunkenness, adultery, hypocrisy, inappropriate contact between men and women, etc. Segregating the mosque is not the solution to that. And in polite deference to Aisha’s statement, Allah knows all that will occur and that would occur and perfected Islam for us, it is not in need of modern updates. If it were best for us to have been told to pray in separate rooms, then surely Allah would have stated this and Mohammed would have enforced it in his own time, rather than giving people other guidelines to “deal with” interacting with men and women and children in the same room. For us to argue that “if he had known he would have changed this and that” is a dangerous path to go down. Islam is not a religion that needs new rules added and revised especially at the core in how we offer our prayers! There are other areas of life that change with new inventions and technologies that did not exist (cars, air travel), but offering prayer, in congregation, with men women and children, is the same or SHOULD be the same as it was in the time of our prophet. People are no more corrupt than they have always been, and Islam is just as perfect now to deal with that as it ever was.
I sincerely hope that you will contemplate the practice of our prophet and the need to return our prayer to that of a united ummah, in one room. There will assuredly be some naysayers, but there will also be those who have currently abandoned the mosque and muslim community here altogether as a result of the segregated practices and exist as islands, who can once again participate in Islam with their brothers and sisters and husbands and wives and sons and daughters. Most importantly, opening the prayer will be fulfilling the sunnah and example of our prophet Mohammed which there is no good reason to turn away from and which the leaving of has already done much damage to our community. I will leave you with Allah’s words:
“O My servants, I have forbidden oppression for Myself and have made it forbidden amongst you, so do not oppress one another.”
Update 5/29/2012: I did receive a reply back from the masjid, but I’m not copying/pasting it here verbatim because it was actually addressed to someone other than me (a man, I’m guessing, based on the name) who apparently also talked to the sender in person. I can only assume that he got the two of us mixed up. On the plus side, this suggests that someone besides me addressed the issue with the masjid, which is somewhat heartening :). However, the representative who contacted me did say that there was not going to be a solid wall between the two halls in the new mosque. This does beg the question of what kind of division there is going to be, since they are described as two separate halls. (The current mosque appears to have been originally built without separation, but there is sort of a makeshift wall which completely separates the two sides). So we shall see… more to come insha’allah :).
Update 7/29/2012: To date, I have not received any further response regarding the original letter or my followup (shorter :P) email replying and asking about what type of division would exist in the new mosque, since there were two halls described.
Update 8/31/2012: Although I never did get any further clarity from the masjid, I did receive some more info and a floor plan from another attendee of this masjid which clarified matters a lot! The new plan will have a main hall, and a separate smaller room behind it connected by a wide, open doorway. The two rooms are variously referred to as the main hall and the auxiliary hall, or the men’s room and the women’s room. The person who passed this on was of the understanding that women would be allowed to join into the main hall (though that wasn’t the impression I got from the person who responded from the masjid, but as previously noted, the response wasn’t particularly clear). Still it is promising and an improvement on the current setup. It remains to be seen how it will play out, whether the main hall will be inclusive and whether the “women’s auxiliary area” will remain openly connected (it appears the current mosque was once one big room as well which was later separated…). If the main hall is to be all inclusive I’m not sure why it’s built as two separate rooms and the smaller referred to as the women’s area. But time will tell :).