Just as there is great variation among Christian communities, there is variation among Muslim communities. This is something we’ve come to understand gradually and with much confusion. We really loved our mosque in Michigan, and we wanted mosques everywhere to be just like that. That’s a pretty big burden and assumption to place on Muslims of the world. Be like Michigan! Please! This demand is definitely not fair of us and we’re learning to adapt.
However, I don’t let the need to understand and accept this new milieu stop me from thinking critically. For me, “separate but equal” is not working out so well. The manner in which the genders are segregated sends some powerful social messages that I cannot ignore.
The mosque we went to today is on a beautiful piece of land. It’s woodsy, it’s green, it’s very inviting. The mosque itself is a converted house along with a large converted accessory building, possibly a former pole barn. The men pray in the house. The women pray in the pole barn. I see a hierarchy established in that fact. Need I explain? The house lends legitimacy to the men’s space. It’s difficult not to see the pole barn as second-class seating.
I had never experienced a jummah prayer where the women were in a completely separate building. To me, that’s not congregational. The khutba is delivered by a man, from the men’s building. In the women’s building, I felt so removed from the source of knowledge. I felt like a spectator rather than a participant. The women’s building smelled like the gym I used to practice gymnastics in--a combination of chalk, sweat, and mildew. Maybe the house is just as rustic, but Jason didn’t notice any smells there.
Now, in every mosque we’ve been to, there is a real shortage of space. Jason said the men’s section was completely filled today. Before the prayer, they had to sit shoulder to shoulder to make room for everyone. There is no elaborate seating in mosques. We sit on the floor, and this is necessary because prayer is a full body activity. We stand, bow, and prostrate with our foreheads touching the ground. This doesn’t allow room for benches or a lot of chairs.
Therefore, I understand that there just isn’t room for the men and women to occupy the same space at this facility. But for me, that makes it a less than ideal facility, and I don’t think the whole congregation ever fit in the house. That men and women would occupy separate buildings seems to have been the original plan when the property was purchased and repurposed. It’s disturbing to me that the hierarchy of men’s and women’s positions in the mosque was so deliberate. In other mosques, it at least seems accidental that the women’s space is smaller than the men’s. Nevertheless, my dominant impression in all of these mosques is that the women are actively separated from the men—not the other way around. We are the “less than” population.
I never felt that in Michigan. My home mosque is very open. The women’s side is as big as the men’s side. For a regular jummah, there is room to accommodate the whole congregation, although they use a gymnasium for overflow space during Eid prayers. For women who want some extra privacy, there is a room divider like the picture above, but it is usually only stretched about a quarter of the way across the room. And it’s nice, because it offers some shielding for women who want it, but they can still see the speaker through the lattice work. Not being able to see the speaker is what bothers me the most about walls in masjids. For me, it’s isolating and it makes me feel like I’m not being spoken to—like I’m not part of the conversation, as if the talk is not meant to be for my benefit as well.
Once, I went to an evening halaqa where the women’s section of the mosque was corralled off by a green nylon screen, the same material as cots at my daycare when I was little. The talk was interactive. The speaker asked questions of the audience, but I couldn’t answer because I was behind the screen. Only the men could participate! It was so infuriating and I felt so humiliated. There was no question of providing modesty during prayer in that situation—which is the rationale for men and women sitting separately in mosques. This was an educational talk. To me, gender segregation in that setting is downright un-Islamic. We’re supposed to strive for knowledge without shame. (See Jason’s post, About ‘At The Masjid’)
Alhamdulillah, the last time I attended the 'At the Masjid' facility for an educational event, the curtain barrier was raised and the room was arranged so that the women could sit and participate equitably with the men. I confess, this was the result of speaking to an imam about the situation, and he intervened. My point here is that this isn't a problem without a solution. It isn't a problem that challenges my faith. Moreover, it's a problem that I don't fully understand the source of, because I'm not a native of this community. Right now, I can only the describe the effect that gender segregation has on my experience of the masjid. But I understand that it is my responsibility to learn about why things are the way they are here.
There’s nothing left for me but to invoke Robert Frost:
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Reading “Mending Wall” in this light, examining real walls before my eyes, it says precisely what I feel.