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
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.