Muslim Women Man-Eaters

I read this blog post The Penalty Box: Muslim Women’s Prayer Spaces yesterday and it sent my head a-rollin’. If you wish to read on, expect a lot of rambling. 

In almost every single mosque I’ve been to, women are made to pray in an area that is completely separate from the men’s praying area. And in almost all cases, the women cannot see the imam or the other men who are praying. The result is that it is not uncommon for women to “miss a beat” during the prayer and find themselves completely lost as to where the imam is at this stage of prayer, especially if the woman starts praying after the prayer has begun. 

This is in the best of cases. 

But frequently it is much worse. 

Most mosques in Egypt have a crappy, curtained off area for women to pray in. It’s usually a corner in the very back of the mosque. A penalty box, as the writer of that blog post so eloquently puts it.

I will admit that if a woman has gone into the mosque and wants to take a nap, it is quite convenient to have a separate area for women. And I’ve seen women do this. But most women go into the mosque to actually pray. 

What is so wrong with women being able to pray the congregational prayer at the back of the normal praying area of a mosque? This is what happened at the time of the prophet. Lines were made such that men were in the front lines, young boys were in the middle, and women were in the rear. But in this day and age we have taken this to an extreme: women are hidden away from sight. 

How many women are out there that – like me – wished they could just walk into a mosque, Al-Azhar mosque for example, and pray the sunnah prayer right in the middle 

I didn't have to glare at anyone to pray in this blessed mosque 😉

of the mosque like everyone else? I’m going to have to admit that I’ve done this a few times. And I have a glare that can scare off a thousand men so I get away with it too. But many women don’t have The Nadia’s glare. And if they try to pray in the middle of the mosque they are reprimanded by one man or another and sent to “the penalty box”. Why do some men feel obliged to send the women away? What threatens them so much about a woman praying? 

I’ve even prayed in parking lots and parks when I’ve needed to. In the non-Muslim world, this will get me the odd glance or two. But in the Muslim world, I’ve frequently been approached by men and women telling me that it’s haram (prohibited) for a woman to pray in front of men. Prohibited? Who prohibited it? The odd logic they give is that men will look at a woman’s behind as she prostrates. Come on! First, I’m praying. I’m not doing anything other than what God has asked me to do, and that includes prostration. Second, what the heck is a man doing looking at a woman’s behind while she is praying before her Lord, for goodness sake? Who is in the wrong in this case? The woman praying or the man looking at a woman’s praying behind?? And if there’s a huge issue about hiding prostrating behinds, men should hide their prostrating behinds as well. Or do you think women don’t like to look at men’s behinds? 

The blog post I refer to in the beginning of this post also addresses segregation of men and women during religious lectures. 

Let me tell you a story. 

I was covering a conference a few years ago in Dubai (I’m a science journalist). The conference was about the scientific miracles in the Qur’an. Let’s put the subject matter of the conference aside because that needs a whole ‘nother blog post. But in this conference, the organizers had placed the men’s seats up front and the women’s seats way behind. I had to do my work and take pictures and also interview people. So I was roaming around for the three days of the conference going up to the stage, taking pictures, and mingling with men as I spoke with them for potential interviews. At the end of the conference, a woman – whom I did not know – came up to me and told me: “You are like a sister to me and I would like to give you advice. The other women are talking about you because you walk among the men. This is not good behavior.” 

I must admit this sort of situation only happened that once in my professional career as a journalist. But that was the only time I covered a religiously inclined conference too. 

The point: many conservative Muslims have a preference of segregating men and women everywhere; in mosques, in religious lectures, in non-religious lectures. It’s perfectly fine with me if that is what makes them comfortable and I do not want or need to attend. But then what about the rest of us who every once in a while would like to attend a lecture and see no need to be thrown in the back of the room? Which reminds me of the time I stopped by the Islamic Youth conference held in Cairo a few short years back and found that they had the women sitting in a room at the back that was completely cordoned off from the rest of the conference. What is so bad that can happen to a man when Nadia El-Awady decides to sit next to him while he listens to an Islamic scholar speak about Islam? Could I possibly be that distracting? And if I am, whose problem is that exactly? Mine or the person who gets distracted by a veiled woman sitting next to him? 

I’d suggest to organizers of that sort of conference: have a special place for men who don’t want to sit next to women, a second special place for women in the back who feel that’s their proper place in society, and a third place for the rest of us who can keep our minds and our hands to ourselves when sitting next to a member of the opposite sex.

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15 comments

  1. Lovely post, as I spend time talking to more and more sisters, I realize so many of us are fed-up with our marginalization in our communities manifested in such obvious ways like in “penalty boxes” and other inanities.

  2. Nice article, and very natural reaction..and I really looking forward to see where we reach with this discussion..We have to engage some Islamic Scholars in this topic.
    As what I am convinced, that there is nothing wrong in Islam with IKHTILAT..men and women being together in one place..working..worship..events..lectures..ext..as long as they are not doing anything prohibited..
    Regarding the mosques..there should be a nice place for women to pray, and I saw in some mosques that women can pray in their own box, and they can see Imam.
    Unfortunately, still a long way for the Muslim women to get their Islamic rights in our man- run societies..Muslim women should move for their rights rather than waiting non- muslims and secular forces ask for their right :)..Go on Nadia

  3. Allow me to say, that I’ve voted then read your post. Although my choice in the vote remains the same after reading, my interpretation to the answer is the one that has been changed.

    I cannot deny that a woman sitting next to me in a lecture can be a sort of distraction to me. But so is my mobile, my male friend whom I haven’t seen for a while, or even an empty paper pushing me to draw something on it. In fact, even my own mind can even distract me. So I do not see the point of locking women in “penalty boxes” just because they might distract men.

    I guess many ones here use the words like “Distraction” and “Fitnah” all the time as curtains to hide some other inner emotions like “Jealousy” and “Insecurity”. A guy who has the feeling of insecurity will sure be happy to know that he may use religion to force his wife to stay at home and not deal with anyone in the whole world. Also a guy who is jealous from his wife’s success will sure appreciate those preachers who claim that women aren’t allowed to work.

    So finally, yes, and attractive women may distract me, yet we have to grow up and be more responsible, as it is really annoying to keep blaming the others for everything like children.

    1. Tarek, I think that is a very open and honest comment. Thank you. And I think, like you, that it’s normal for people to be distracted every now and then by many things, as you say. What’s important is our actions. Thank you, Tarek!

  4. Should this even be an issue in the 21st century?

    Forward to the 7th century.

    Good Job Nadia. Keep up the spirit. I wish all women and men would rise to your support.

      1. will always remain such I’m afraid; so long as women are looked upon as instruments of lust by pusillanimous, brain-washed men projecting lack of control over their raw instincts upon women. shame. shame. shame.

  5. I liked the last paragraph the most; strong! 🙂

    Off-topic: When I first read “the Nadia glare,” the only name that kept ringing through my head was Medusa, Medusa, MEDUSA!

  6. Very interesting post, Nadia.

    At the risk of being reprimanded by your legendary glare , I even add a provocative additional question (I know you know you’re on a slippery slope, and I want to explore it with you).

    You ask:

    whose problem is that exactly? Mine or the person who gets distracted by a veiled woman sitting next to him?

    And I ask, from my point of view of a non believer (but you may consider me diversely-believer, if you prefer) born from a Feminist mother and living in Italy:
    How much veiled?
    And what if a woman decided – respectfully – not to be veiled?

    I assume that in Egypt too a lecture about Islam in a conference room is not like a prayer in a mosque, so exterior signs of respect that might be reasonable to adopt in a mosque (also by a non-Muslim woman, I mean) might not be as needed in an educational setting.

    Is that also reasonable to a diversely-veiled woman?

  7. I usually don’t comment on such “modern ideas”, but I just couldn’t help it this time. The issue of course is not “distraction”. It’s very simple: how GOD wanted us to worship him, not as we see fit, nor as time requires. So the question here should be: how can we know what GOD wants? The answer is: GOD sent Muhammad the prophet for that purpose in particular. And after his death, there are persons who can continue the process of telling us how GOD wants us to worship him. Intellectual activities are required in each and every aspect of life, except in Islamic instructions. You can’t just drink a glass of orange juice in your balcony for an hour then come up with something!
    These things should be restricted to the persons who dedicated their lives for it because they have what it takes. What would you say about me if I told you I m an accountant for example but I have a theory about how NASA scientists are not doing their job the right way, and they should listen to me on how to build a space shuttle?!
    More importantly, persons who are carrying that burden of ‘fatwa’ are held responsible for every word that can be considered as ‘fatwa’. They don’t deal with this matter as lightly as you are dealing with it now. Excuse me, but I really don’t think you are qualified to cast judgements and deny instructions in this revolutionary manner thinking that you are doing something good. No, you are not doing something good.
    Mingling of men and women is bad. Not because it’s distracting, not because it leads to social disasters, but because GOD said so.

  8. Very sad! You want to change what has been ordained by Allah(SWT). Where is your modesty? You ask whose fault is it if someone gets distracted by your praying in the mosque in an undesignated area? The very fact that someone COULD get distracted from their praying suggests an answer. Praying in separate areas prevents this. You are an example of someone who has knowledge and degrees in one area trying to assume they have expertise in another which may not be so. You are not knowledgeable in this aspect of the DEEN because if you were, you would know the GREATER reward sisters receive for praying at home and for GUARDING their modesty.
    In this case modesty entails MORE than just WEARING hijab it involves the behavior of hijab. Some sisters think that just wearing the veil is enough and that this is excuse or reason enough, to continue the same social interactions with men that they had BEFORE donning the veil. You have to ask the question: Why does a sister WANT to intermingle with men? I am not talking about the social interaction that is necessary for survival, (work) etc.
    Personally, I would not want to be friendly with a sister who wants or chooses to practice the behavior you are describing. I have learned the wisdom of these ‘so-called’ restrictions having been a revert to Islam after living the so-called ‘free life’ that sisters laud in the WEST.
    The so-called ‘penalty box, ‘is a special allowance for sisters who want to pray in the masjid. Whereas, men are encouraged to pray in the masjid, women are encouraged to pray at home because of the BLESSINGS associated with each of these actions. (Read Bukhari hadith about women and salaat)
    I know that nothing I say will change your mind. But i am thankful to have been raised in the West and to have come to Islam from that perspective so your feminist leanings are familiar to me. Some feminists in Islam want to restructure Islam along the lines of what they see in western society and the Church, without adequate knowledge of what Islam truly is. Islam is for everyone, not just the stouthearted but even those less so, hence the safeguards. Stop looking at the practice of Islam through a myopic scope and look at what is good for the WHOLE of society.

  9. you have a strong point… but still.. OUCH!

    i’m all for women imams btw 🙂

    and more open mosques.

    imagine, we mix sexes all through life but then segregate it in the mosque. i mean as if u’d be doing whatever shitty stuff in the mosque, staring, groping, having group sex.. come on.. be reasonable!

  10. Salaams Dear:

    Very nice response to Ify’s post.

    I experienced something in Turkey last month. We were in a musalla of a corporation. I was the last one out from making wudu. When I entered the musalla, I didn’t see any of the sisters. So, I prayed behind the men. When I do this I go to the last row to make room for late-arriving men. After the prayer was over, the sisters appeared from an area off to the right that was curtained off by a very heavy dark curtain. You should have seen the looks on their faces when they saw me, lol. I’m a little like you; not too many people say things to me 🙂

  11. It is very obvious that Islam is the only major religion to make such a fuss about this in a House of God, where normally it is the sort of space where members of the opposite sex do NOT feel sexual towards each other, its just not the environment. Going to such great lengths to segregate men and women in an atmosphere of worship – signals at some very worrying ideas within. Can’t men be trusted to pray next to a woman? Why not? They can be in other religions it seems, so what’s wrong with Muslim men then..!

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