I attended the annual ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) conference earlier this summer, an event that brings together Muslim leaders from all fields. I got to listen to some great speakers and see a lot of wonderful people. There was one moment, though, that is still bothering me.
Included in the ISNA conference are MYNA (Muslim Youth of North America) lectures and events. There was one lecture in particular that my friends and family were interested in attending. Youth get to choose seats first, so we got good seats toward the front.
Two minutes after we settled into our chairs, one of the MYNA volunteers told us we needed to sit separately, boys on one side of the room and girls on the other.
My younger cousin voiced it perfectly when he simply declared to their faces, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
And he was right.
This was the only event I had been to that weekend that was gender segregated, which is bizarre. Why are we singling young people out with these regulations?
In doing so, we assume some things about kids and teenagers.
We create rules based on these assumptions, and we force a narrative of young people as characterized by wrong intentions and inappropriate interactions.
The worst part is that this kind of separation is not unique to this one event. It happens frequently in Muslim gatherings. I have been fortunate to have mostly been surrounded by progressive, active, well-rounded Muslims, so I personally don’t face this kind of situation often. But the fact is that it happens a lot.
It characterizes and defines many young Muslims’ childhoods and adolescence. This has serious implications for the culture of Muslim communities.
To separate young boys and girls is to sexualize their interactions immediately.
It is to say that even sitting next to one another is in some way inappropriate. It teaches children that the only relationship between one another is sexual and therefore should be avoided. And it shouldn’t even really matter, but especially when we are sitting with our brothers or cousins, or close friends we grew up with, to tell us that we might be giving strangers “the wrong idea” is ridiculous on so many levels.
Creating these rules assumes that a MYNA lecture, or another sort of Muslim gathering, is the place that young people are going to get up to some hanky-panky. Honestly, if young people are going to try and get down with each other, it’s going to be anywhere else.
Literally anywhere but there.
I’m not trying to hate on any one organization or take away from all the good work they do. They still provide amazing opportunities and services, and that has not gone unnoticed. This conversation matters because it is a common theme in events like these.
This is about a culture of gender segregation.
This focus on separating kids makes any kind of relationship seem that much more tempting, and weird. It also contributes to a lack of self-control as kids get older, when they finally have independence. It’s important that they learn their limits and self-discipline as they grow up, and not suddenly have to deal with it when they’re in high school or college.
Especially since we live in America, we have to recognize that boys and girls have access to each other in every setting, at school, at extra-curricular activities, but all of a sudden, in Muslim contexts, they’re told to separate. If we want our Muslim youth to grow up to be socially aware and to pursue relationships with one another, it doesn’t make sense to isolate them from each other when they’re young, while they have access to everyone else.
Further, it invalidates same-sex relationships, which tells children it’s unacceptable to be gay, or just leaves them confused.
It’s not okay to keep telling children that piety looks like segregation. Because it’s not true, and it sends such a twisted message.
It’s not okay to tell children that a high-five is inappropriate because it leaves room to be interpreted as something “more.”
Practicing a system of segregation legitimizes and fuels so many sexist practices across Muslim communities, whether it be to send women to a tiny room in the basement of a mosque to pray, or not legally allowing women to drive.
Here’s a thought: let’s not do that anymore.
It’s not impossible, guys. I know for a fact it’s not.
In most of the Muslim contexts in which I’ve grown up, we were always treated with respect, and not as if we were little troublemakers just waiting for some devious shenanigans. It’s okay for kids to be friends, of any gender, of any sexuality. Let’s just stop letting patriarchal cultural traditions get confused with religious practice.
Because that’s not okay.
Let’s not perpetuate sexism, mkay? Cool.