Gender Separation in Mosques: Unequal Segregation or Mindful Modesty?

Mixed-Gender Eid al-Adha Prayer Led by Imam Pamela Taylor Photo by Glenn Koetzner

Over the past few years, this nation’s capital has become a hub for what some see as a  progressive movement among Muslim Americans. Reform efforts recently resulted in a mixed-gender Eid al-Adha prayer led by Imam Pamela Taylor. While a number of leaders and organizations have accelerated the progressive Muslim movement in metropolitan Washington, DC, one local area woman has been particularly influential.

In late January of this year, Fatima Thompson, a practicing Muslim of 18 years and current chair of Muslims for Progressive Values, Washington, D.C, Chapter walked into the National Mosque. She found segregated prayer spaces for men and women and described the area designated for females as a “penalty box,” noting the 7-foot-high wooden panels separating her from the much larger prayer area designated for men.

(Gender segregation in mosques varies from country to country. Thompson says that two out of three mosques in the U.S. require women to pray behind a partition or in a separate room.)

After numerous phone calls and hand-delivered letters to the mosque without a response, and inspired by the Greensboro Four, Thompson organized a stand-in (later termed a “pray-in”) at the National Mosque. Amidst a few feet of snow piled high on the sidewalks, Thompson and 20 others entered the main prayer hall designated for men only. The police were called and the group was peacefully escorted out.

Two weeks later, Thompson and ten others organized another pray-in and, again, the police escorted the group out. In protest, they prayed on the sidewalk in front of the National Mosque. A public hearing at a public library in front of 100 people followed, with panelists exploring “Where is the place of women at the mosque?”

A final later pray-in at a Virginia suburban mosque in May ended with a heated verbal exchanges between Thompson and a mosque attendant opposing her position. The women were labeled to be “aligned with Satan.” A supporter of mixed-gender worship accompanying Thompson was allegedly assaulted.

On May 21, The Washington Examiner reported that Police Chief Cathy Lanier ordered officers not to get involved in future situations related to a woman’s place in mosques. Thompson and supporters claimed the policy as a small victory, while some legal scholars worried about the privacy precedents being set.

Despite the efforts of Thompson and others, it is widely believed that most Muslims are in favor of gender segregation during prayer. The most common pro-gender-separation argument originating from hadith points out claims that in a mixed-gender prayer atmosphere men would be distracted by the back-sides of women while in sujood, or prostration.* Many Muslim women agree and say that they pray with an increased level of comfort knowing that men are unable to see their bodies while worshiping. In response, Imam Pamela Taylor told Inside Islam,

“People say that men can’t control their desires, but men are doing it in church. Sure, there might be a few inappropriate men here and there, but overall people are controlling themselves in every religious setting. In the Kaaba, men and women pray together without any sort of barriers. Why can’t we do that every day?”

Disagreements over mixed-gender prayer and other gender issues within Islam will continue, but it’s clear that the dialogue and debate is more public than ever, and has encouraged Muslims, both men and women, to consider their faith from new perspectives.

* An earlier version of this post implied that this distraction argument is based on hadith, which is not the case.

Do you pray alongside non-relatives of the opposite sex? If so, have you ever felt uncomfortable or distracted? If you’re not a person who practices a religion or faith, how do you interpret the concept of separating men and women during prayer?

4 thoughts on “Gender Separation in Mosques: Unequal Segregation or Mindful Modesty?

  1. I applaud Ms. Thompson’s desire to bring this issue to the forefront. Why not let individuals choose where they pray? If Islamic women wish to pray separately, allow them to do so. If others feel differently, allow them the freedom to choose where they pray as well. It seems that Ms. Thompson is choosing to assert her right as a human being, deserving of the same respect as those of the opposite gender. To be told that your prayers must be made in a boxed in area and that men have more value as they are allowed in the main area of the Mosque, seems to be counter to how I understand Mohamed valued women. I hope Ms. Thompson and her supporters continue to demand equality in prayer as every individual has value and should be the decider of their own way and place of prayer.

  2. While doing some research for a class I am taking, I came across the Pew Trust study of American Muslims conducted in 2007. According to that survey, some 50% of the respondents want women to pray in a separate space, some 25% want them to simply pray in the back of the room, and some 25% want a congregation with no gender segregation at all. I was surprised at these numbers, but it shows we are far from a small group! 25% of 2.5 million is an awful lot of people. Furthermore, given that 0% of mosques are meeting the needs of these people, it is clear that change needs to come!

    You can down load the report here: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/483/muslim-americans

  3. Pfft, how is there going to be a PIANO in a prayer room and expect Muslims to take it seriously. Honestly, I am shaking my head over here…

  4. Sometimes, the fine line between “genuinely exercising personal freedom” and “creating controversy for the sake of controversy” is easily stepped over. My personal analysis of the issue suggests that this scenario is the latter disguised as the former.

    First, a great majority of Muslim women (yes, including feminists) do not feel the compulsive need to pray next to or in front of men. Obviously, “Imam” Pamela Thompson (I hope she is aware that ‘Imam’ is a male title) does not feel the same way, and she wanted to exercise her personal freedom in expressing this view. So, she concocted a group of like-minded Muslims, and sought to congregate together in a prayer that is more suited to their liking. Fine.

    (For the sake of argument, I will omit the use of any arguments from the Prophetic tradition or the voluminous and erudite work of thousands of Muslim scholars, men and women, because “Progressives” tend to quickly dismiss these as nothing but heaps of medieval, patriarchal opinions.)

    Why didn’t Ms. Thompson organize a congregation in a separate facility or a different area? On what basis does she entitle herself to this mosque space? Just because she is a Muslim?

    Every place of worship – heck, every restaurant! – has its own customs, it’s own “rules”. Just because you are hungry and have money does not mean you can walk in naked into any food franchise and expect to be fed. Likewise, I can’t walk into a Jewish Community Center along with eight of my buddies and dip into the swimming pool after hours, just because I am Jewish. Rules are rules, and they have to be respected. If you do not want to respect them, you are more than welcome to carve our your own facility, make your own rules, and attract your own congregants. And kick out those who disobey them.

    To walk into National Mosque and demand that prayers be conducted in a certain way is to walk into Pizza Hut and demand that your large pepperoni be made with rhino meat. And when the confused lady behind the counter – working at $10/hour trying to make ends meet – tells you she can not, you decide to rally a few of your friends in protest, and sit in the restaurant until she calls WWF and asks them to send over a couple of rhinos.

    If you want to be taken seriously, ‘Imam’ Pamela, then be sincere and engage the community in an intellectual discussion. Don’t just barge into a place of worship with your muscles and arrogantly expect them to replace their rules with yours. Doing so tells me that you are not interested in supporting your cause, you are interested in how your cause can support (and promote) you.

    God Bless,

    M.R.