As a child, I would run laughing through the mosque as if the entire building was my playground.
When your mother is an influential leader in the community and your dad one of the regular faces at the mosque, you’re welcomed everywhere. You become “the darling.” You are doted on by aunties who squeeze your cheeks and rain down blessings on you, while the uncles always have treats for you in their pockets, and ready to play fun games with you between prayer times.
But as I grew older and puberty loomed, my world became smaller as the areas I could roam steadily shrunk.
I was no longer allowed downstairs (the biggest part of the mosque). The uncles stopped smiling at me altogether.
I was suddenly restricted to the “back room.”
Despite this, I would still hang around in the corridors chatting to my brother and the boys I had once played with. After all, this was my kingdom. I’d grown up in this mosque so why should I suddenly be denied the friendships and freedom of my youth.
Inevitably, I would then be reprimanded by some man who found my presence and easy manner with the opposite sex offensive as he shooed me into the sister’s area where he thought I belonged.
The whole charade exasperated me and bored me to tears, because that’s exactly what it was, a charade. I saw those men and women outside the walls of the mosque and their behavior was different. Less guarded. More casual. Empty of the pretense and protocol that governed them within the walls of their religious institution.
I saw the men chatting with women in the street and sometimes saw them hand in hand with those women.
It was the same story for the women who were hesitant and shy to enter the kitchen, which was the one communal space in our mosque. They would often ask me to go with them, clutching my arm as we walked into the room full of men while I stood by as they washed a mug or made a cup of tea like I was some kind of custodian of their comfort.
But I’d also seen those women outside the mosque interacting with men just fine, walking down streets lined with men.
Suddenly, they would turn into shy creatures inside the mosque.
If all the world is a stage, Muslims are putting on a mighty performance every time they step into a mosque or religious space with one another. Segregation does nothing but to create a false reality. The religious teachings regarding the respect of women in Islam have been taken and caricatured into a gross misrepresentation.
For example, the concept of “lowering your gaze” is just that, a concept, yet some men have taken it as a literal rule and refuse to look into the eyes of a woman in the mosque. I remember during Ramadan our mosque would serve dinner every night, and a group of us would always help, passing dishes from the men into the women’s section. One man would pass me plates of food, head turned away from me, eyes completely averted and looking at the floor.
Incidentally, I never took it as a sign of respect. I will never take it as a sign of respect. It’s a distortion of a simple statement designed to respect women. They have taken it too far.
They have turned this concept into irrational normality.
To segregate so completely is an insult to both genders. We are assuming that men are so lacking in control around women that they must be cordoned off. It does women a disservice and dehumanizes them to exaggerate sexual temptation so much so that we must be kept hidden.
The notions of segregation have naturally been exaggerated by cultural influences, but regardless of where they come from, they’re not helping anyone. Keeping something hidden and separate make it coveted. It also disfigures, like a visual game of whispers, the original message getting lost along the way.
And Islam never was, and nor will ever be, about avoiding the opposite gender and creating barriers, but instead about mutual respect and collaboration.
You can do neither of those things when one gender is stuffed into corners and hidden from sight.
It’s time to bring down the barriers of segregation and create gender-neutral spaces within our religious spaces.