Looking at Masjid Inequality in Australia

‘Eid Mubarak to everyone! ‘Eid ul’adha is a reflective time for Muslims all over. There’s the story Abraham and Ismail’s sacrifice to God and what that sacrifice means in terms of our own relationships to God. There’s also Hagar’s story of being in the desert and actively asking God to help her find food and water for her and her child. During Hajj itself, there are many lessons learned by the pilgrims. One of the greatest is the equality of all Muslims before God. During hajj, men and women stand side by side to worship God. This is a point made by Nadia Jamal in an editoral in The Sydney Morning Herald about the lack of equality in the Australian mosques. Jamal asserts that in Sydney’s largest mosque, there is physical separation of the sexes that doesn’t occur in Makkah.

Jamal rightfully points out the gender segregation that occurs in Australian mosques and mosques all over the world is way beyond what was the norm during the time of Prophet Muhammad and that prominent Muslims in Australia, including Sheikh Fehmi, are working to change this. However, they are facing opposition from conservative elements. Jamal’s anecdotes of gender segregation sound woefully familiar to situations encountered by Muslim women, myself included. In one situation, Jamal walked out of a social gathering that was gender segregated. This is a common occurrence at mosques and a situation that can be very uncomfortable.

I am glad that Jamal pointed out that often gender segregation is not a result of official policy at mosques but a result of conservatism by various men and women. I have experienced this first-hand when a partition was pulled in front of me during prayer, despite the fact that the president of the mosque in question told me himself that this was not official policy.

One thing I do wish Jamal had done, though, was call for more dialogue between Muslim women and men to address this issue. At the end of the article Jamal insists that Muslim women have to “insist on sitting at the same table as their Muslim brothers.” I agree that we have to insist on our rights, but I do think we also need more dialogue between the genders to discover why gender segregation is occurring at mosques, despite the fact that gender segregation is not even possible outside the masjid. If men aren’t engaged, then I don’t think much will change. Also, I think we have to call for calm dialogue and not put men in a position where they feel like they’re being attacked. I know this is easier said than done.

Also, I wished that Jamal hadn’t placed the actions of some on the entire Muslim community. “When Muslims are criticised for being “backward” I am among the first to defend the community. My latest experience makes this stance one that is increasingly harder to maintain.” I know that dealings with fellow Muslims aren’t always easy, but I think we have to resist the urge to make blanket statements.

Lastly, Jamal speaks about men who prevent gender inequality at mosques. I think that we also need to look at the role women play in gender inequality as well. Some of the biggest defenders of gender inequality and gender segregation are women. Their support helps to maintain the status quo just as much as the support of men. Jamal’s editorial will hopefully help to increase dialogue on this issue and make our mosques more open.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    It’s an interesting dilemma we face when religious leaders want to move forward, but a community doesn’t. I wonder how they’ll attempt to either compromise or move everyone else in agreement with the idea…

  • Sobia

    This is quite the dilemma. I’m wondering if the women who hold on to gender inequality and segregation are educated about the long term repercussions of this. For instance, when children go to the mosque they are often in the women’s section. What will happen to them and their view of Islam if they keep seeing this segregation? And what about the women who refuse to go because of this treatment? What about their children? Will they ever go to the mosque? And what about the single mother of boys? When the sons are old enough to be in the men’s section but not old enough to be away from the watch of a parent where will they pray? Will they just not come to the mosque?

    There are so many negative long term repercussions to sex segregation in mosques that people are just not considering.

  • amirah

    ok so the gender inequality i understand but personally i dont have a problem with the segregation part… even before i converted i went to all girls schools so i dont see the big deal some women feel its better to be segregated in some situations. there are plenty of all girls universities, high school and even elite prep school… check upper east side NY or the rich part of england mostly all of those schools are single sex. even islamic schools are segregated…..i mean your not in the masjid as long as you spend the day at school so imagine that the repercussions would be alot less extensive during jumah or something .i think that some women young and old just feel better that way…..i dont know i feel like if some women feel like they need to be at an event with men or sitting right behind them at the masjid then ok make it an option but its not for me.

  • Aynur

    I think there should definitely be more dialogue between the men and women about this.
    In just talking to my husband & his brother, they do not want the women even behind a curtain in the same room, as the women are too noisy. I’m not sure if that’s the case in other masjids, but I have seen it at a few in this area.

  • Krista

    I don’t know if I buy the “women are noisy” argument for segregation. First of all because (even if it’s only women who are noisy) not all women are noisy, and it’s not necessarily fair that those of us who are quiet get stuck with the loud ones, while the men get to sit somewhere quieter. Second, if women are being chatty, often that’s because the women are put in the back of the room or in some otherwise awkward location where it’s hard to hear the speaker, so they get bored and start talking because they aren’t able to actually listen to what’s going on anyway.

    But, I also don’t think that women are necessarily noisier than men. I’ve been in a few mosque-type spaces where women and men have been in the same room with a divider, and yeah, some of the women have been noisy, but a lot of the men have been really chatty and noisy as well. Even so, in these experiences, it’s only the women who get chastised for being noisy. I don’t know if it’s just that women don’t feel as comfortable trying to tell the people in charge that the men are being disruptive, but I’ve seen it more than once that it’s only sisters getting asked to be quieter, even though they’re certainly not the only ones being noisy.

    Going back to the original article, I really liked Jamal’s question that “If women were to sit separately, which had not been advertised, why did we have to sit in the back seats?” Although I personally think that many spaces are more segregated than they need to be, I do know people who are more comfortable in segregated contexts, which is fair enough. What drives me crazy though is that so many of these segregated spaces end up putting the women at the back (ie, where it’s hard to hear/see what’s going on), or upstairs (where sometimes you literally can’t see the speaker), or crammed somewhere really crowded, etc. If people want to argue for segregation, fine, but I have a really hard time accepting segregated spaces that put women at such a disadvantage in terms of being able to fully participate in the event.

    And Faith, I totally agree that this needs to be a dialogue in which men are engaged as well. Great post, thanks for writing about this.

  • http://www.nbrobert.co.uk Na’ima B. Robert

    I believe that the ‘women are noisy’ comment may be related to the fact that the women are normally the ones with the young children. Of course, the men don’t want to be disturbed by the noise of babies, toddlers and frantic mothers when worshipping, learning or just plain socialising! (heavy sarcasm)

    This of course relates to the traditional division of labour within Muslim families. I have been heartened to see more of the younger men in our community taking care of their children (in the brothers’ side) while their wives have a class or simply during Jumu’ah. They are often quite well-behaved on that side too :)

    However, there are other issues here. As Anisa mentioned, I too am uncomfortable with the idea of all spaces being ‘integrated’. My main reason for this is that I believe that as a principle, gender separation fits with Allah’s command to ‘stay away from zina’, which overly relaxed or friendly interaction between men and women doesn’t always manage. I love the idea of a women’s only space where we can be free to relax, be ourselves, beautify ourselves, get crazy without the complicating presence of men. My own home is like this and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I also appreciate the privacy I find in a women’s space to learn and worship without needing to ‘be aware’ of men’s presence, whatever that may mean for different women.

    HOWEVER, I do think that segration presents problems that are often ignored in communities where is takes place, namely the inequality of spaces, facilities and importance accorded to the role of women. A perfect example of this is the shoddy state of the ‘women’s prayer room’ in far too many masaajid. I am not saying we should have the same size hall as the brothers (after all, the obligation to pray in the mosque and attend Jumu’ah is on them, not us) but at least an entrance that doesn’t require walking through a damp alley, stepping over garbage or ringing a bell that doesn’t work in order to gain access. Also, decent wudhu facilities, clean and accessible for wheechairs, buggies etc – and some aesthetics, please!!! A visit to one of the historic mosques in Cairo is enough to show you the ‘wonders’ of the men’s section, made all the more amazing when compared with the sorry state of the corner the sisters are shoved into. I can only assume that this is because, in this part of the world, women did not traditionally attend the mosque. But too often, the artists’ skills are lavished on the main hall with nothing more than a cursory lick of paint for the sisters’ space.

    Another aspect that segrated communities need to deal with is equal access to information and to the decision-making process. I believe we should be able to work together as brothers and sisters when necessary, when we have a shared project, objective or community issue to deal with. Unfortunately, in too many communities, we women are ‘out of sight, out of mind’. This is what we need to guard against as it goes against the common good and disregards and belittles the contributions of the women of the Ummah.
    So, sorry to go off on a tangent, but what I am saying is that I feel that the needs of Islamic modesty and morality (which, let’s face it, are different to the society in which most of us live!) should be balanced with the need to promote mutual respect and co-operation between the genders. Is that too much to ask?

  • jamal

    physical separation of sexes doesnt happen in Masjid-e-haram because thats how Tawaf is ordered to be done there. BUT at the time of Salah, women DO go to a separate section.

    read this: