The role of gender in Islam is a topic that has been debated since the time of the Prophet Muhammad by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I recently posted pieces about mixed-gender prayer and female religious leadership in Islam, looking at various aspects of the complex question of what sorts of interactions between men and women are appropriate. Is the separation between men and women encouraged more in a mosque than in other public settings? Where in the mosque should women pray?
In 2005, Zarqa Nawaz, a Pakistani-Canadian journalist, filmmaker, and creator of the famous Canadian TV show, Little Mosque on the Prairie, made the documentary Me and the Mosque to explore issues related to gender in Islam. Nawaz traveled around Canada and the United States, focusing on the separate and unequal spaces for women’s prayer and the significance of the increase in strict gender separation in mosques. You can view the film here.
In the film, Nawaz–born in Liverpool, and raised in Canada by Pakistani parents–expresses her feelings of being unwelcome as a woman praying in her local Saskatchewan mosque, where women were forced to pray behind a one-way mirror overlooking the main prayer hall where men congregate. She searched for reasons relating to the increased prevalence in strict separation (barriers, partitions, walls, mirrors, separate rooms) and interviewed family members, religious scholars, and average Muslims around North America for answers.
Nawaz focused on cultural traditions and ignorance–two themes that surfaced throughout her travels–as possible explanations for such strict separation
“Ignorance is the underlying reason. It really is. It’s a cultural practice, it’s what they heard from sheik so and so, and sheik such and such, or heard from their mothers or heard from their fathers or whatever all the time growing up. It’s cultural practices in some countries and they just bring that here [to North America]. . . and just because it’s done in a so-called Muslim country does not make it Islam or Islamic.”
Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, chair of the Nawawi Foundation, pointedly explained his views,
“You’re really talking here about a dysfunctional culture. Which is the dysfunctional Muslim culture that comes over from India or from Pakistan or from the Arab world, which is not a wholesome, sound, Islamic culture.”
“We have created a culture that has ingrained ignorance as the status of a women. Are we now giving legal rulings that respond to the reality that we created, and saying this is the legal position in Islam?”
While Nawaz thoroughly explores why strict barriers exist through numerous interviews, the film does not adequately explain why these strict barriers have increased so much in recent years. Muslims from cultures where women are not welcome at most mosques–much of South Asia, for example–have been living in North America for decades. Yet strict barriers have only become increasingly common in the last 10-15 years. Wahabi Islam and its increased influence around the world may be one reason, but there’s something else missing from this story.
Have you seen an increase in the separation of men and women in your own Muslim community in recent years–in the mosque or other public spaces? What influences or events do you think have led to this increase? What does the increase of gender separation in North American Muslim communities signify?