The problem with segregation in Islam

(This article was originally written for and published on The Tempest)


As a child, I would run laughing through the mosque, the entire building my playground. When your mother is an influential leader in the community and your dad one of the regular faces at the mosque, you’re welcomed everywhere. You become the darling. Dotted on by aunties who squeeze your cheeks and rain down blessings on you, while the uncles always have treats for you in their pockets, ready to play fun games with you between prayer times.

But as I grew older and puberty loomed, my world became smaller as the areas I could roam steadily shrunk. I was no longer allowed downstairs in the biggest part of the mosque. The uncles stopped smiling at me altogether. I was suddenly restricted to the ‘back room’.

Despite this, I would still hang around in the corridors chatting to my brother and the boys I had once played with. After all, this was my kingdom. I’d grown up in this mosque and why should I suddenly be denied the friendships and freedom of my youth. Inevitably, I would then be reprimanded by some man who found my presence and easy manner with the opposite sex offensive as he shooed me into the sister’s area, where I belonged.

The whole charade exasperated me and bored me to tears, because that’s exactly what it was, a charade. I saw those men and women outside the walls of the mosque and their behavior was different. Less guarded. More causal. Empty of the pretense and protocol that governed them within the walls of their religious institution. I saw the men chatting with women in the street and sometimes saw them hand in hand with those women.

It was the same story for the women who were hesitant and shy to enter the kitchen, the one communal space in our mosque. They would often ask me to go with them, clutching my arm as we walked into the room full of men while I stood by as they washed a mug or made a cup of tea, some kind of custodian of their comfort. But I’d also seen those women outside the mosque interacting with men just fine, walking down streets lined with men and yet suddenly they would turn into shy, retiring creatures inside the mosque.

If all the world is a stage, Muslims are putting on a mighty performance every time they step into a mosque or religious space with one another. Because segregation isn’t doing anything but creating a false reality. The religious teachings regarding the respect of women in Islam have been taken and caricatured into a gross misrepresentation. For example, the concept of ‘lowering your gaze’ is just that, a concept, yet some men have taken it as a literal rule and refuse to look into the eyes of a woman in the mosque. I remember during Ramadan our mosque would serve dinner every night, and a group of us would always help, passing dishes from the men into the women’s section. One man would pass me plates of food, head turned away from me, eyes completely averted looking at the floor. Incidentally, I never took it as a sign of respect. I will never take it as a sign of respect. It’s a distortion of a simple statement designed to respect woman. They have taken it too far. Made a mockery out of it and in doing so made a fool of me. Because who was I, or what was I, or what was wrong with me that he couldn’t look at me. That he went to such extremes to avoid looking at me.

To segregate so completely is an insult to both genders. We’re assuming that men are so lacking in control around women that they must be cordoned off. On the other hand, it does women a disservice and dehumanizes them to exaggerations of sexual temptation that must be kept hidden. We’ve been fighting against the scarlet letter for years, the las thing we need is to go to war over it in the spaces that are reserved for faith, worship and spirituality.

The notions of segregation have naturally been exaggerated by cultural influences, but regardless of where they come from, they’re not helping anyone. Because keeping something hidden and separate make it coveted. It also disfigures, like a visual game of Chinese whispers, the original message getting lost along the way. And Islam never was, and nor will ever be, about avoiding the opposite gender and creating barriers, but instead about mutual respect and collaboration. You can do neither of those things when one gender is being stuffed into corners hidden from sight. It’s time to bring down the barriers of segregation and create gender neutral spaces within our religious spaces. 


Salma El-Wardany