Freedom from the Forbidden

All things gender and Islam. No bigotry is allowed in this feminist territory. #DeathToPatriarchy

The Hypocrisy of Gender Segregation at Mosques – but not during interfaith events

Yesterday, Kashmala, my six-year-old niece, called me to give me two sets of news: “great news and great, great, great, GREAT news.” The great news was ❤ and the great, great, great, GREAT news was ❤ ❤ ❤ times much more. She was so excited to say: “I went to a mosque, and there was no wall there! Everyone was in one big room!” She’s six years old, Muslims. If a child knows something’s wrong with the space that women have in most other mosques, you know you’ve got a huge problem to work on decades ago.

I sometimes just don’t get us Muslims, period. I don’t get our inconsistencies. I don’t get our hypocrisies. When it’s just us Muslims, we’re one way; when non-Muslims join us or they’re around, we’re something else.

The usual old-ass disclaimer because: Of course, there’s gonna be that one reader who thinks this is me being Islamophobic – because self-criticism counts as Islamophobia, too, apparently. True story: A well-known  Muslim woman once totally accused me of being Islamophobic and inciting Islamophobia once. I was discussing misogyny within the Muslim community and challenged someone’s claim that Muslim women can’t/shouldn’t marry non-Muslim men because non-Muslim men would abuse our rights – because apparently, Muslim men don’t abuse our rights. And this person, L.S., comes out attacking me for being so Islamophobic… ?! Because to recognize and point out our own misogynies is an Islamophobic act. This disingenuous thinking takes away from what should count as real Islamophobia because, for God’s sake, misogyny inside our own communities is also a form of Islamophobia! (More about this here (on the Islamophobia of abusing, disrespecting, and hating on Muslim women, esp. Muslim feminists)  and here (on the ideal victim and perpetrator of Islamophobia.)

Anyway, so my point about giving that disclaimer was to say: up yours if you won’t acknowledge a Muslim woman’s right and need to call out misogyny and hypocrisy in our own communities. Misogyny is a real problem, and the broader problem of Islamophobia doesn’t get to take away our right from us to criticize our communities. And it says a lot that we’ll silence the women of our own community members just because the problems they face are not faced by the men of our community. So obviously, Muslim women’s struggles are a “private” matter that doesn’t need to be pointed out publicly – because these stinking non-Muslim Islamophobes will have a play day with that information. But, yeah, never mind that Muslim women are tired and sick of the way they’re treated by their own communities, whether inside the mosque or outside of it.

But I was saying.

See, here’s the thing. Gender segregation in mosques, with all the different ways it is practiced by different Muslim communities, is one of our most hypocritical realities. We won’t let women and men in a mosque even look at each other or greet each other with salaam. We require women to pray behind the men, almost always with a barrier of some sorts of between them (sometimes it’s literally bars… yeah, think about that for a few decades). We won’t let the women pray in front of the barrier or wall.  Because modesty, apparently.

interfaith stuffs.jpg

And then a non-Muslim visits our mosque. Or non-Muslimsss in case of interfaith activities/events. What do we do then? Easy: We insist that Islam honors women, so we push off the barriers in the mosque, if they’re portable. (And, yes, let this sink in, too. What does this say about this barrier business?) We more than welcome non-Muslim women into the mosque; we show them around, we introduce them to the imaam, the Muslim males of the community greet them, talk with them, and otherwise just show as much respect as possible to them. But that’s really only because they’re hoping to get rewards in the possible case that this non-Muslim woman converts to Islam. You know how that goes: the more people you convert, the more jannah points you get because then for each good deed this person commits, you get a bonus point to take you to jannah. Yeah, dream on.

And then, of course, the same people who demand gender segregation in mosques are the last to recognize that they actually work with multiple genders and sexes in their workplace – and that’s totally okay. But somehow, just somehow, the most important thing to do in a mosque is to separate people by their gender. Why, exactly? I couldn’t tell you. But it comes down to something like: Apparently, women and men go cray-cray if they’re allowed to pray together. No one will actually get their prayer done, and everyone will just be gawking at each other, jumping at the apparently open opportunity to have sex – because that opportunity obviously doesn’t exist outside the mosque, as we all know – and women will be having babies left and right out of wedlock and marriages will be breaking because, well, women won’t let their hubby jaans bring new wives home. Or some version of this totally preposterous fear.

But is this something that can happen when non-Muslim women and men are joining us at the mosque? No, not at all: It’s only when it’s just Muslims, apparently. That’s why we get rid of the curtain/barrier in many  of our mosques when we’re hosting interfaith events.

And do we have gender segregation during Hajj? Nope. No. Not at all. Absolutely not. There, women and men get to walk around and do their prayers with each other – and shockingly enough, our anxiety of gender-mixing is suddenly gone. Then again, maybe God is at work with Her special Powers in Mecca because people are more interested in performing the Hajj right, so sex isn’t on anyone’s mind. Whereas in ordinary mosques, you can’t be so sure… or something.

BUT the thing is, there are plenty of “mainstream” mosques where women and men do pray together. And sure enough, the Muslims there are still hanging in there – none of the men are jumping at the wonderful opportunity to, you know, do whatever we fear they’ll do if they got to see women in the same space inside a mosque. Astaghfs.

So here’s the thing, Muslims: If you put up a barrier in a mosque when it’s just Muslims but that same barrier vanishes when non-Muslims are in the picture, the barrier has no place in the mosque. And it means that your fears of the absurd potential consequences of no gender segregation in the mosque are completely unfounded. Admit it: You have absolutely NO excuse to have that barrier there in the first place. You have absolutely NO excuse to treat Muslim women like fifth-class citizens in the mosque – or anywhere else. If you have to hide the true reality of your mosque and the way you treat the women of your mosque when non-Muslims are visiting your mosque, it’s quite clear that you know you’re in the wrong, that you know your treatment of Muslim women is unacceptable, embarrassing, and was supposed to end 1400 years ago.

[P.S. Raise your hand if you knew that there were no barriers in mosques during the Prophet’s time. So much for claiming these barriers are sunnah or, worse, obligatory.]

People be like, “But it’s about modesty.” Having barriers has nothing to do with modesty. If you need a barrier to separate the genders so you can be modest, you’ve got modesty all wrong.

Then they be like, “But women want privacy.” Look, I totally believe in women’s choice to have it however they want it. The thing is, most mosques don’t do a damn thing because it’s what the women worshipers want. They do it because the men leaders/administrators there are too insecure to let women have a decent space to worship in. BUT! About this whole “it’s what women want,” let’s not forget that our likes and wants and comforts and whatnots are influenced by what we are told is right and wrong as well. If all our lives, all we’ve seen is barriers in mosques, that’s what we’ll think is correct unless the imaam of the mosque does his job right and actually teaches us that these barriers aren’t necessary or required. I’m no fan of men telling women what’s wrong and what’s right, but let’s be real here: Most community members really trust their (male) imaam to teach Islam to them. So if you don’t normally challenge a man’s attempt to mansplain anything to you but the only time you do is when the imaam is giving you legit information about your rights as a Muslim woman, yeah, that’s not cool.

The mosque I go to has a sign (that’s not always visible, but it’s still at least there – yay for our standards) on the curtain between men and women that reads: “The positioning of the curtain is at the discretion of the sisters.” And other times, we see a sign that tells us we can pray either in front of the curtains or behind it, wherever we’re comfortable. We still end up praying behind the men – because the Muslim woman’s rightful position is always behind men – but for now, I am supposed to be (and I actually am) grateful that I have the choice to pray, even if all by myself most times, in front of the curtain if I want to.

I hear there are mosques in the world that don’t have women praying behind the men. In these mosques, one gender is on the left, the other on the right. There’s still space between them, but no one’s behind anyone else based on their gender. I can work with this idea.

I also hear there are mosques in this world where people can pray wherever they want with whomever they want ❤ This is my ideal mosque. This is the mosque that is truly My Creator’s Home. There’s at least one of this sort in Toronto. It’s called El-Tawhid Jum’a Circle. Here, no policing happens, either. You wear whatever you gotta wear to be one with your Creator.

Also, speaking of interfaith stuff. So, I love this idea, and I love all kinds of interfaith things, and I totally believe in building bridges and all. But you know what I think is actually more important most times? Intra-faith dialogue. The same mosques that are first to invite non-Muslims over or willingly hold panels with non-Muslim organizations and synagogues and churches and temples and all are also sometimes the very first to promote hatred against non-Sunni Muslims. Yeah, so excuse me for not trusting your motives very much and your “oh let’s get together and love each other and embrace each other” nonsense that does not extend to Muslims who don’t practice and understand Islam YOUR way.

Categories: Death to patriarchy

32 replies

  1. As a Jewish feminist, I found your post shared on a blog for Jewish feminist, noting the similar struggles for equality and observance in Jewish circles. I am in my 40s and am lucky enough to have grown up in a religious space where women and men had equal access to ritual observance. But for many of my spiritual sisters in Orthodox Judaism, the struggle is still real and hard won. And the arguments about impure thoughts and modesty ( and men as sexual and women as passive etc. , etc.) and workplace versus prayer place are soo similar. (There are Jewish prayer spaces with the equal viewing /down the middle partition and places with three sections , male , female and mixed and places- like where I grew up and currently pray with no partitions at all). Keep fighting the good fight. I hope that you will be able pray in your ideal mosque someday soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Rainbow! ❤ Indeed! I'm a huge fan of Jewish (and other faith-based) feminism – reading up on it a lot for a class this semester. The struggles are very similar, often the exact same. Patriarchy has no religion and no culture. Feminists of faith United! Thank you for reading and engaging!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. So true. I once was bullied, threatened and intimidated for praying in the main hall of the Taibah mosque in Amsterdam.

    I was fed-up going through the back door and praying in the women’s room which was small, messy and dusty, without a working loudspeaker. They even called the police on me.

    And what happened a few months later?

    A group of clearly non-Muslim women visited the mosque on a tour in our neighbourhood. And all those white, non-Muslim, probably secular middle-class women came in through the front door, and were cordially received in the main hall. The hypocrisy, misoginy and implicit racism made me sick to my stomach, as I watched them doing what I was forbidden to do.


    • Hugs. I remember you sharing that story. That’s just horrible. I just read someone else’s story of exclusion and dismissal at their mosque as well. And so many male readers (but hardly any females) have condemned this article as an attack on Islam and Muslims. And then they wonder why we turn to blogs to share our concerns.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m a rabbi and a woman who was invited to a mosque to speak at a little conference on a religious topic. I was so confused by the fact that I seemed to be the only woman there, but at the end a handful of women who were apparently watching FROM ANOTHER ROOM (via video feed!) came up to shake hands. I had no idea what to say to them, obviously it was not my place to say “The men of your community are acting towards you in an unbelievable way.”

      But from me to you, I want you to know that I was in no way flattered by this. Rather, it shocked me. At least when Jewish communities sex-segregate, they do not privilege Gentile women but treat them like everybody else.

      Orbala, in response to your post: although I would never convert to any other religion anyway, this whole episode had the exact opposite message of the one you write is intended. What I got from it was “As a non-Muslim, you are an honourary man. If you convert, you will be downgraded to an unseen woman.” Why would anybody punish themselves like that?


    • Thanks so much for your thoughts, Greyrook!

      You see, I’m not a fan of “at leasts.” If anything, when it comes to comparing religious patriarchies, I have to say, some of my female Muslim friends often point out that “at least Islamic religious patriarchy is still more merciful than other religious patriarchies.” I’m not a fan of this idea, either, but it’s to say that many Muslim women would disagree with your take on this.

      Also, when it comes to the treatment of non-Muslim women in our mosques, it’s not just ANY women they treat with utmost respect – it’s almost exclusively white women (because internalized racism, problems of insecurities that lead to the desire to seek validity from white people – so that we can say “hey, a white white woman likes and has converted to Islam, and so obviously, Islam is the right religion!”). Still, even when non-white women visit mosques, they’re still shown much more respect than Muslim women typically are.

      With Muslims, then, the “gentiles” are treated better than us natives are.

      So, no, it’s not that a non-Muslim woman is viewed as an “honorary man” and “downgraded to an unseen man.” It’s simply that we Muslim women are sick and tired of non-Muslim women shown more respect than we are.


  3. Just to round out the Abrahamic faiths, I’d like to thank you for this blog as a Christian who grew up in a conservative group practicing all kinds of policing, shaming, and control of everyone really, but women in particular. The religions are different but so much of your experiences resonate with me. I especially remember the frustration of nothing you do being right if you’re a woman, being silenced in the name of unity, and being made to feel as if I had to constantly anticipate and be responsible for every man’s possible reaction to my clothing, demeanor, or mere presence.

    Thank you again for writing these thoughtful reflections of what it looks like to engage in faith without taking for granted all of these gendered restrictions!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved reading this! And I couldn’t stop laughing! Your so funny, but of course you make a very good point about something so important. I joined my friend in LA who started the first all women’s mosque last year. It was awesome.
    I often ask the same questions you ask. I asked my mom, who is it ok to see men at with and the supermarket, but around our own Muslim brothers, we have to be segregated??!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A big brasa (=Surinamese Creole for hug) to you, too, Orbala jan! Thank God I found a mosque where folks are genuinely friendly & welcoming. But it’s been a long journey to find it………

    Thinking of which, I myself could write a hole series just on my experienes with mosques, good and bad, in Holland and abroad…..

    I already started writing it on paper, so inshallah I’ll start to blog about it myself in summer. 🙂


  6. Oh, and also much love & solidarity to all the other ladies posting here. We’ll get there, God willing.


  7. we dont have this problem in temples


    • That would be false. Some temples might not have this problem, just like some mosques don’t have this problem. But it’s not something that’s exclusive to any one religion or to religions, period. Patriarchy is unfortunately found in all parts of this world, so there’s that.


    • That is NOT true.

      I just read an article in a Dutch newspaper that Hindu women from the subcontinent face the same discrimination, segregation and inequalities in the temple as Muslim women in the mosque.

      Sometimes Hindu women are barred alltogether, sometimes they can’t visit the temple when they’re on their period, or women from 10-50 years old can’t visit the temple.

      Hindu men are just as patriarchal and misogynistic as their Muslim brethern.

      Sidenote: I am Surinamese and originally from Surinam/Dutch Guyana. Hindustani people are the largest ethnic group there; 70% of the Hindustani people there (and here, in Holland) are Hindu, 30% is Muslim.

      And in Surinam as well as in Holland, there is a whole lot of racism, colorism, sexism and patriarchy going on in those (sub)communities.

      So much so, that the suicide rates amongst Hindustani youngsters in Nickerie (a province of Surinam where mostly Hindustani farmers live) are schockingly high, and have been high forever.

      Young girls (and some boys/young men) take their own lives often, mostly by drinking poison.

      And the domestic violence rates, the alcohol addiction rates AND the incest rates are also high.

      So don’t try to play “it’s only those bad Muslims”-game, because it simply isn’t true.

      Sunni Hindustani Muslims have the same problems; only Ahmaddiyas tend to be much more relaxed and inclusive.


    • So, in short: Patriarchy, misoginy, gender segregation and discrimination of women are just as much a problem in Hindu communities as in Muslim communities. Google “dowry deaths” and “Eve teasing” (and read my post) To say nothing of the discrimination that Dalit women and Muslim women as minorities face….


  8. Ma khor,
    As a half-Pathan sister I can’t wait to share this blog with my dad and discuss Pathan feminists 😉
    What can I say…I agree entirely. I appreciate how you eloquently have voiced my own frustrations with masjids. Modesty as a form of dress has always frustrated me and I’m tired of it being bandied about. It’s a character attribute and isn’t just about sexuality. I almost want to throw the word out of the dictionary. How would a conversation go when you talk about being a humble person (VS a “modest” person)? What does humility look like?


  9. What is even the point is restricting dress code in masajid if women pray behind a barrier or in a different room and enter through a side entrance? Are men challenged by immodestly dressed women they can’t see in the distant vicinity of them?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Assalamu Wa Alaikum sister! I am a recent convert who is slowly gaining more and more knowledge. And the first thing I was concerned about after converting and attending the mosque more is the barriers! I knew something was off when I first started praying at the mosque about it. One of the mosque we attend had a very small barrier, and it’s wood but has cut outs. That one didn’t even bother me honestly. It wasn’t until we started to attend another mosque that I formed a hatred for them! ( both Sunni btw )
    The second one has an atleast 6 ft wall! It is a old church renovated to act as a mosque, so the barrier is literally an added addition that’s on top of a old pew. I wish I had a picture of this astrocisty. Nonetheless the less I hate that thing. The mosque I attend is very culturally influenced ran by mostly Arabs. My problem is I don’t know exactly how to come to them about it. I have done a little research on my own and have found proofs that this was not the way of Prophet Pbuh. The biggest proof being Meccah. And If there isn’t one there then why are they everywhere else!?

    Basically though I just want to say I am glad to see there are other women like myself who aren’t trying to be labled as an islomphobic for just speaking out! Keep up the good work!


    • The struggle is real, sister! ❤ If you can meet with the imam of that mosque, try to do so, and discuss the issue with him. Share resources with him – and with the mosque – and once he agrees with you that the barriers are a bad innovation in the religion, encourage him to do a khutba on it or something. (This might be tough to get him to do: I still haven't succeeded in getting my imam to give a khutba on the subject, even though he knows and agrees with me that the barrier is NOT Islamic.) Maybe the documentary called "Me and the Mosque" by Zarqa Nawaz. Speaking and bonding with the women congregants of the mosque might help as well. Make good friends there, gain their trust and respect, and then slowly ask them how they feel about the barrier, and in the process reminding them that there were no barriers in the Prophet's or caliphs' times.

      Liked by 1 person

    • In Shaa Allah. I have seen that movie when I first began my research on this. I have been discussing it with my husband. He is using the argument that Aisha ra taught from behind a barrier. And I’m telling that there was different circumstances regarding the wives of the Prophet Pbuh. Also he’s saying that Sh. Inn Taymiyyah was taught by women who spoke from behind a barrier.


    • Ugh, this patriarchy. Remind him we’re talking about mosques, places of worship, accessing the mosque and congregation. If we claim the Prophet’s example is the best of all, then let’s be consistent, remind your husband, and use his example in the masjid. When women questioned and challenged and addressed and responded to the Prophet and the companions in the mosque, there were no barriers.

      Ibn Taymiyyah may have been taught by some women behind a barrier, but there are plenty of other cases where the scholars were taught alongside women and WITHOUT barriers. Aisha also didn’t always teach behind a barrier. I mean, what, did she always have a barrier between her and the companions, like Abu Hurayrah?

      Even so, context matters as do the consequences of these barriers. If they do more harm than good, we need to get rid of them. Somehow, the idea of change works in all other contexts except when it comes to improving women’s lives. Why, why?


    • That’s what I was saying. I am a recent convert since about sep. the end of the last EID. And I told him I feel unwanted at the masjid. One night I was literally crying. And now I won’t go at all.


    • ❤ Solidarity, sister. Solidarity. I realized how beyond horrible this treatment of ours in mosques was when I was asking my six-year-old niece after Ramadhan if she's had any encounters with patriarchy lately. (She and I talk about patriarchy a lot, and she often calls me to tell me how "patriarchy happened today.") And her response? A heartbreaking: "Patriarchy isn't happening anymore, since Ramadhan is over." …


    • There’s a similar problem of gender segregation in Orthodox Synagogues. Women pray in a totally different section with a limited view (like a balcony) or even in a separate room with no view at all.

      There’s a Tumblr blog about women’s spaces in mosques, but I can’t remember the name.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll reply to these comments soon, ladies! ❤ Apologies for the delay!


    • Yep – what Rosalinda said. The Tumblr is Side Entrance, run by Hind Makki. A really wonderful blog.


  11. @ Em: The tumblr you’re referring to is called Side Entrance, and created by Hind Makki, an anti-racist and islamic feminist activist.


  12. Reblogged this on No More Hurting People Peace and commented:
    Thank you for writing so passionately about this! Like you, I find it very hypocritical that this gender segregation stuff is only practices *sometimes* and that there wasn’t actually this kind of legalistic nonsense at the time of the prophet. After some research it turns out that there are many who feel this way but the struggle for equality still seems to be so far away….


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