When I was in school, congregations in the surau (small prayer halls or mini mosque) would be segregated by gender: women on one side, men on the other. We would enter the same door, pray next to each other but separated by a wispy thin, almost see-through curtain. I understood that women simply felt comfortable this way; taking their hijab off to put on their telekung (prayer scarf) away from the sight of unrelated men. And so this kind of gender segregation didn’t really bother me. In fact, that’s one practical side of gender segregation that made sense to me. However, an undercurrent of discomfiting feelings about why women and men should be separated at such events, especially religious ones, soon became more difficult to ignore.
When mosque spaces became a constraint width-wise, women would to be relegated to the back, behind the men. Why to the back of the mosque? Would it be too much for men to view women bending over for rukuk and sujud I wondered?
The answer was indeed ‘yes’. The idea that the female form as a sexual distraction to heterosexual men in places where men need to be serious and focused on the act of worship disturbed me. The female form, as it were, is reduced to an enticing object whose presence needs to be concealed or simply made ‘unattractive’ to maintain spiritual order in the house of God. For someone who was growing into her adolescence rather ungracefully – all frizzy-haired and pimply-faced – being a sexual distraction was the last thing I thought I could be to these men.
I began to understand that women navigate the space around them quite differently from men. How women present themselves in public and private spaces are tightly controlled and monitored by family, society and eventually, themselves. For men, both the private and public are their domain.
To further reinforce this sexual difference, purdah is applied to women and men (a little on this later). Purdah is a centuries-old custom that comes in two forms: the spatial segregation of the sexes using either curtains or walls, and the other by sartorial means such as the burqa. Today, purdah is maintained to various degrees; from extreme enforcement in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, to certain occasions, like weddings and funerals, in many Muslim communities.
It seemed as if spatial purdah would quietly do its own thing, existing in its comfortable, uncontroversial confines of tradition until recent criticism against it involved the British MP Jim Fitzpatrick who walked out a wedding in London because it was gender-segregated and could not sit with his wife. The furore over his actions boiled down to accusations of Fitzpatrick’s racism against ethnic minorities in Britain and their cultural practices, rather than his protest against the sexism in segregated weddings.
In a response to the media’s one-sided focus on Fitzpatrick’s ‘bad manners’, Jobeda Ali writes about the sexism in gender segregation that is ignored for the sake of preserving respect for certain customs:
No-one disagrees with respecting other cultures. But respecting an unjust practice just because some people claim it is their culture/religion is us cringing from the difficult task of social change, especially the advancing of women’s rights in resistant cultures; it is one of the hardest things to do. But we should not use culture and tradition as an excuse to not challenge injustices. We should not shy away from issues just because our own society does not practice them.
I agree with Ali’s argument in that some customs related to space must be challenged if they pose as an excuse for gender discrimination. Challenging these norms allowed women to attend university – once a male-only institution, a kind of zenana for men in privileged purdah if you like – to gain employment outside the home, and ultimately reclaim equal rights to public space.
At the root of all this is the propagation of myths about women’s bodies and sexuality that keeps women in check and insults men’s abilities to control themselves, faith-wise and sexually. And so it’s about time women and men embrace inclusion in religious gatherings in ways that everybody can understand and respect, not exclusion. Changing attitudes to gender relations would eventually change attitudes towards gender discrimination that underpins many social customs.