sign for the women's section: Blue Mosque, IstanbulThere’s a barrier in front of me and it’s covered in orange felt.  An unknown brown stain sits right in front of my face.  Coffee?  The imam is talking about supporting our community — I think.  I can barely hear him over the din of women gossiping about their children or that new muslimah who wears her hijab in a bun.  I wonder if it’s me they’re talking about.  What is that, coke?  When I put my forehead against the carpet in prostration I can smell feet.  The men are just on the other side of the barrier, and no one bothered to use odor eaters.  Seriously, is it a dirty water stain?  That’s disgusting.

Partitions dividing the women’s and men’s sections is just one of many contemporary additions to our North American mosques.  But unlike water fountains and basketball courts aimed at providing needed services, the barrier aims to silence and shut women out of the community under the guise of sacred personal space.

Islam has always had some form of sex segregation when it comes to communal ritual worship.  For obligatory prayers, men and women have their own prayer sections — with women either praying behind the men, or beside them with a separating aisle. Religiously suggested and sanctioned modes of dress and behaviour intend to help the sexes mingle chastely outside of worship situations.  When there are social requirements for the entire community to work together Islam encourages mixing.

Traditional, cultural and political appropriations of these logistics have not only lead to partitions, making us feel like second class citizens, but have also forced praying women into mosque basements or kept them hidden at home.

Over the past 30 years partitions have crept slowly across the face of North America.

Mosque communities are diaspora, they are home grown, African American, cater to converts or exclude anyone who doesn’t speak the language.  Some are progressive, others are moderate.  Some are more strict than others.  Some have charismatic, accredited leaders.  Others have to rely on volunteers to keep the community running.  All belong to a wide range of Islamic interpretation and expression. All at some point or another have had to deal with the barrier discussion.

Generally, men tend to dominate mosque administrations. This is in part because of a fallacious belief that women cannot hold positions of power, but also because many women are holding down a job, caring for children and the household and simply don’t have the time to sit on a volunteer mosque position.  Those who do volunteer tend to be retirees with empty nests, female Islamic scholars, university student representatives or simply stellar sisters who can balance career, children and mosque.  But they are few and far between.  And really, in mosques where partitions show up, there is rarely a woman on the board.

Those in power tend to have a smattering of Islamic education and try their best to provide religious services for the community, while answering the concerns of Muslims who are growing up with distinctly North American concepts and values as well as the cultural expectations of older generations.  Many of these mosques started in someone’s basement, in old banks and even abandoned Anglican churches.  In these mosques there tends to be no “traditional” imam, and the role of community leader is shared among a roster of volunteers.

Enter the culturally and politically motivated religious group.

They come with good intentions.  They come with “valid” religious credentials (valid could mean a turban, a very long beard, or an actual degree from an accredited religious institution). They come specifically to help this fledgling, North American mosque survive in a morally corrupt secular country with no state-sanction Islam to tell them how it’s done like it is “back home” or according to the “real Islam.” They carry authority.  They are highly intimidating.  They sometimes even carry funding from overseas, have access to scholars who support their religious interpretation, and who use religious text to wrestle power away from the community.  They are mosque pirates and their leadership includes promoting the complete segregation of women.

From Little Mosque on the Prairie:

Oh the fuss that’s made over these partitions!  They’re erected without first consulting the women. So we walk into the mosque with a shocking, “oh hell no.” Many women take this as their cue to leave and never come back.  Others argue and argue, but either the men in power don’t listen, use misinterpretations of the religious text to prove the barrier’s Islamic justification, or they simply defer the argument to women who actually want to be secluded.

The barriers are also ingeniously constructed, making it painfully obvious that someone puts a lot of thought and effort into excluding women. There’s the drawn curtain (my favourite); the one-way mirrored glass; venetian blinds; old 70s felt room dividers; opaque glass; a solid wall with tv projection and poor sound system; very pretty woven wood slats; and so many more.

looking through the barrier

Now, there’s no Quranic sanction for the seclusion of women.  So how is it justified?

Well, apparently women are a distraction, so we are made invisible.  Hijab, modest dress, and even niqaab aren’t enough. You can never be sure as to what will set off a man’s immoral thoughts and feelings, so it’s best not to be seen. Or heard. When we do attend the mosque, it’s also drilled into us to be silent, out of the fear that our soft, sultry voices will incite lust in men who cannot possibly be trusted to control their own desires.

And for some poor souls, even announcing the times for a sister’s weekly swim is enough to send them lasciviously imagining  round, supple hijabs floating in water.

You know, perhaps it’s best if women just didn’t come to the mosque at all.

This is the subtext. The “official” reason for the barrier is to help create sacred personal space so that both men and women can worship without sexual distraction.

Oh great. I’m behind a barrier for my own spiritual good. If I weren’t hidden from the male gaze, I would cause the spiritual downfall of countless men. Because you know, we all come to the mosque to hook up (well, sometimes). And apparently, humans are incapable of worship in the presence of the desirable other sex. Must really suck if you’re a gay Muslim and you’re forced to pray next to people you’re attracted to.

As of the year 2000, about 66% of mosques in Canada had some kind of partition.

Now, some women do indeed feel more comfortable praying behind a barrier.  In the majority of Muslim countries women just don’t go to the mosque. It’s not encouraged. Mosques tend to be overrun with men and the space set aside for women is generally lacking or falls into disuse.

There are also cultural justifications for the partition. North America provides an interesting dynamic for the immigrant Muslim population. The culture is different and potentially isolationist —  there is also religious freedom.  If you want to meet people from “back home” you can do so at the mosque. Many women attend the mosque for the first time only after they’ve come to Canada or the US.  First its for companionship and later its to actually learn about Islam.

In this case, the barrier does indeed provide a safe space for women to meet and network.  Ask anyone about the most annoying issue about the barrier. It’s not necessarily the subjugation of women. It tends to be the loud gossiping and socializing during the sermon. But what would you expect?  The barrier shouts to us, “you’re not a part of the mosque religious or decision-making culture!” Of course we’re going to feel safe in our little space, unwind and have a bitch n’ stitch.  No one cares that we’re there.  So why should we?

But we should care because the problem with the partition is that while it’s toted as creating a sacred personal space, where men and women can worship freely without distraction, it denies women participation and access to religious education, makes unfortunate assumptions about the moral fortitude of Muslim men, and encourages the disempowerment of women.

Islam has the capability to promote equality between the sexes.  When she’s old enough, I’ll be teaching my daughter Eryn how to read the Qur’an, how to understand problematic verses, and hopefully to encourage her to be an empowered Muslim woman. I would hate for her to grow up seeing the barrier as an essential part of mosque culture.  I would hate for her to feel less than anything she is capable of becoming because of her sex.

Thankfully there are brave women and men who continue to challenge the partition’s status quo.  Mainstream, moderate mosques refuse to put up a barrier, or accommodate both sides of the argument. Some mosques have even gone back to men and women praying side by side.  Women, like myself, subvert the barrier by praying in front of it, or if it’s a curtain, simply tearing it aside.   Some women even decide to just lead prayer themselves.

For years women have been empowering others through social networks, offering positions of leadership and opportunities for women to engage in politics, social justice and feminist interpretations of Islam.  I find it interesting that while it is not an Islamic requirement and more of a cultural misappropriation, mosques have gone through complete renovations to install high-tech wall dividers to cut the mosque in half.  When everyone could be accommodated through a “barrier on wheels.”  That way, those women who really feel that they need it have the option.  And as for the few blokes who just cannot stand to see a women when they enter the mosque — perhaps they’re the ones who should stay home.

Cross-posted at Womanist Musings.