Gender Segregation in Muslim Societies: From Jahiliyya to Muhammed to Fatwa Chaos

The strict gender segregation found in many Muslim societies today is led by religious hardliners who view women as a source of temptation, seeing no virtue in dignified male-female interaction.
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Image credit: Hend al-Mansour

"Women are the complementing halves of men," said the Prophet Muhammed, who believed that a woman's role as a daughter, wife and mother doesn't presuppose her absence from the public sphere. The quest for strict gender segregation in many Muslim societies today is led by religious hardliners who view women only as a source of temptation, and who see no virtue in dignified male-female interaction. The Orientalists are often blamed for their sexualized depiction of Eastern women (especially in their portraits of harems), but some religious clerics go as far as to portray women as a source of temptation. It's not uncommon for a moral cop to call a woman hurma (meaning "prohibition"), and this mindset has affected the moral fabric of Muslim societies. And recent, irresponsible fatwas have wounded these societies further.

Right after Sheikh Abdul Mohsen al-Obeikan said on an Arabic-language channel that adult breastfeeding is a way to skirt around the issue of gender segregation at the workplace, I called him to understand the basis and application of his fatwa, but I received no response. Most women I have talked with say that they feel ridiculed as a result of the exceedingly sexualized approach to gender mixing -- which is deeply troubling for me, too, as a Muslim man.

A fellow journalist Maha Akeel made a pointed remark that "these sheikhs seem to be more interested in causing problems than solving problems; with their words and actions they are turning people away from religion." Obeikan is not the first. In 2007, an Egyptian cleric Sheikh Izzat Attiya issued an edict in favor of directly breastfeeding male colleagues -- at least five times -- to forge a maternal bond, after which a woman could unveil her hair in front of the men she breastfed.

Saudi King Abdullah is said to be paving the way for social reforms in the rocky kingdom. His ascent to the throne in 2005 was a breath of fresh air for those hoping for change -- which had been static after the Juhayman al-Otaibi's attempt to take over the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. When King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) opened its gates to men and women in the kingdom last December, cleric Abdulrahman al-Barrak issued a death warrant against those in favor of gender mixing.

Al-Barrak's words exemplify an aggressive, intolerant mindset toward alternative Islamic views. Every step in favor of female emancipation is deemed "evil," and that becomes the basis to malign opposition -- a way to pacify potential mutiny in the name of religion. But there is a gulf between the true spirit of Islam and the method employed by institutionalized hardliners.

It doesn't happen very often that you come across a Bedouin woman from a tribal society, known for its suck-it-up attitude, speaking of her sorrows at venues like Million's Poet. Hissa Hilal's poignant verses attacking clerics such as al-Barrak who spread hate reveal that even a mother of four wants change -- if not for herself, then at least for her daughters.

This is not an infiltration of Western values, which the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) depicts as a germ that needs to be shackled, as we see in their promotional video. What most clerics fail to understand is that Muslims seeking change are not looking to mimic Western values. Maureen Dowd may feel like a mummy when she wears an abaya, but the abaya is not a matter of contention for women seeking change. There is a need to revise prevailing social norms that forbid gender mixing.

A recent fatwa issued by Sheikh Youssef al-Ahmad that calls for rebuilding the Grand Mosque in Mecca to ensure gender segregation is truly misguided, because there is no separation of sexes in the ritual of circling around Kabba (a ritual called tawaf) since the time of the Prophet -- when women were free to pray behind men without partition.

The Chairman of Makkah, Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, endorsed gender mixing, saying that Islam doesn't forbid mixing of the sexes within the boundaries of Islamic etiquette. For these statements, pro-segregation clerics are looking daggers at him. In a phone conversation following rumors of his dismissal, Ghamdi explained that some Muslim scholars forbade gender mixing for fear that casual interaction might lead to intimate relations, basing their argument on unreliable hadith. In an email correspondence, Ghamdi wrote: "She [a woman] could go to study, teach, work or do any thing else even in man's environment."

At the time of the Prophet, women traded in the market and negotiated with men, and adult breastfeeding wasn't a prescription to curb sexual desires. All Muslims face toward the Kabba in prayers, and many look up to Saudi Arabia as an epitome of Islamic society where shariah law is applied to the letter. The impressionable crop of Muslims across the globe see a Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving as a true application of Islam. Some women have willfully excluded themselves from such a society while others have been forcefully pushed away.

Reforms are imminent now that the clerics are thinking critically, but it may take a while before revisions are made to the social norms that date back to the pre-Islamic (Jahiliyya) era. One can only hope for a creative Muslim society that benefits from both men and women.

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