Thursday, February 17, 2011

Memories of Gender Segregation


WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.

What do you mean we have to sit at the back?

I stared incredulously at the mosque representative. About 10 men already sat on the bus waiting for an organized student trip to Montreal – and they were occupying the front seats. A group of six women were standing in the cold waiting for my standoff to end.

I argued that we had mixed classes together, that this was a social trip, that the bus was secular ground, that there was no religious reason why we had to be segregated on a bus, and asked why the women were being forced to the back. I was told that despite the trip being social, we should always maintain proper Islamic decorum, that I wasn’t being culturally sensitive to the needs of the bothers who were accustomed to gender segregated spaces, and that they would feel more comfortable not staring at women for the 4 hour trip. “And what about us? Do you think we want to be staring at you?

He wasn’t going to budge. The least I was able to negotiate was to get all of the men to disembark first so we could get on the bus without having to brush their knees as we passed. I was furious.

Sex segregation in the mosque made sense to me when I first converted. I was interested in learning about my new religion, and was not necessarily on the lookout for social inequities. I probably wouldn’t have been able to see them anyway, since I was still the starry-eyed new convert, and often celebrated the great rights and status that Islam affords women, over recognizing that things weren’t often practiced in the same way.

I did eventually start questioning more frequently when men and women also had to sit in different sections during lecture series, during community dinners, and even during movie nights at the mosque – but the reasons I was given seemed to make sense, so I didn’t argue further. Often I was told that Islam curtails interactions between the sexes to help decrease the chances that an unrelated man and woman would be left alone together. Also, that it discouraged physical touching between potential marriageable partners – which could lead one to temptation and the eventual transgression of pre/extra-marital sex.

Then when I put on the hijab, I accepted an even stricter understanding of the rules of engagement between the sexes, and self imposed a manner of speaking and acting I thought was expected of the truly pious. I avoided looking at men, rarely spoke to men directly, and if I did it was with downcast eyes and with a firm, no-nonsense tone of voice. I let men walk in front of me and stopped shaking hands. I cut off ties to many of my non-Muslim male friends and stopped frivolous, non-work related conversations with my Muslim male friends. My actions were applauded by many in the community, and like-minded sisters used me as an example of a model Muslim at women only events. Together we arrogantly argued that western modes of interaction were shameful -- and the pain of socially isolating ourselves seemed to be worth whatever spiritual gains we were receiving for acting in the appropriate "Islamic" fashion.

My tipping point came almost a year later, when I saw a leader within the conservative community chatting up a non-Muslim female student. He looked her directly in the eyes, smiled, joked, laughed, and even touched her elbow. While the last time he spoke with me, for an event planning meeting at the mosque, he did so through a barrier. We never had interactions outside of the barrier, and if we passed each other on the street, he would look beyond me, never acknowledging my existence.

The double standard burned me. Apparently, because I was a liberated, cherished and elevated Muslim woman, erasing me was more respectful than interacting with me through western mores. And if I felt that direct interaction showed more respect, well then I was just dealing with leftover, misguided non-Muslim belief systems – and should instead follow the perfected Islamic guidance without question. He was protecting me and safeguarding my religion.


Through various sources from the Qur’an and prophetic traditions, it’s argued that men and women must behave modestly, avoid physical contact, guard their gaze and avoid khlawa or the seclusion of one or more men with one woman in a locked room. When a man and two or more women are alone together, it’s no longer considered khalwa, and is a permissible gathering. There are many examples from the prophetic traditions that it is permissible for men and women to work, eat and interact together, as long as standards of modesty, hospitality and general friendly regard are maintained.

The popular reason given for gender segregation is that when unrelated men and woman are alone together, all kinds of nasty things can happen. The devil is in the details -- literally, with many imagining that Satan creates the ultimate threesome: Whenever a man is alone with a woman the Devil makes a third. (Bukhari) Avoiding khalwa protects men from being tempted and women from being harmed.

The 1:2 gender interaction ratio, plus recommendations to avoid physical contact are often used as valid arguments to apply gender segregation to Muslim gatherings, public spaces and has become the norm in some cultures. Sometimes it results in asking women to ride at the back of buses, in reinforcing gender stereotypes, in women being physically assaulted for daring to take public transit, or recently, it results in unmarried couples being rounded up and arrested for celebrating Valentine’s Day in parks or motel rooms.


The onus of sexual segregation is often placed on women. We're the ones in hijab (which is supposed to guard against immodesty regardless), we're the ones who tempt men and who need protection from the actions of men when we tempt them. But as I always seem to be saying, simply assuming that men and women are incapable of controlling their desires is offensive. What if you're just not in to the opposite sex or are intergender? Not only are you never represented, but you could have a veritable field day, or be emotionally tortured by being trapped within gender secluded groups.


Many men and women do feel more comfortable in a sex segregated atmosphere, or at least having the option of retreating to male- or female-only spaces. The lines of segregation can also be fluid, with married couples and children often running between the two sections. Even the most conservative groups at times have space where men and women work together. Then you have the groups that don't necessarily worry about gender segregation, and those that provide a middle ground of the "family section" -- where groups of Muslim families all interact within one space.

These are just my initial thoughts on the subject. Reflecting back on the times where I felt like I was being forced, coerced, and convinced of gender segregation, I now realize that a lot of it had to do with genuine fear of transgressing boundaries and of choosing extremes to safeguard religion and culture. The implications of this as a source of power over others is something I'd like to explore further in a future series of discussions.