The officers of the Toronto School district are facing challenges for allowing Muslim students to hold Friday congregational prayers on their school premises. Canada is a pluralistic nation where they allow prayers for every group without discrimination. However, due to the format of Muslims prayers, gender issue was thrust by a few Muslims to complicate the already difficult matter.
In most countries Muslim women stay at home and rarely go to the mosque as such a space was not created for women. The first generation of Muslim immigrants is still coping with the idea of women praying in the mosque and in the last few years, due to the pioneering effort by Asra Nomani, a conscious effort is being made to create a dignified space for women rather than being accommodated in the available space. Indeed, ISNA, one of the national organizations of Muslims, held a conference about future architectural designs of mosques to incorporate space for women as equal worshippers rather than guests. We are not there yet.
Most mosques have a designated area for women and sadly it is not on par with the space for men. It was not a deliberate attempt but a random and a thoughtless space creation. Hypocritical men become instantly sanctimonious in any place of worship, and a mosque is no exception. Instead of becoming humble, they get arrogant and start telling others how to pray or how to behave. They shamelessly tell women to pull the hijab over their heads or make undignified comments. Please note, it is not a common thing in America and Canada, but even if one woman is "told" in a mosque to behave, it should not be acceptable. We should set higher standards.
Upon the call of prayers (Adhan) Muslims line up in rows, and each row is as wide as the mosque and about five feet apart. The imam invariably asks the men and women to form the lines as straight as they can and urges the worshippers to stand closer to each other's shoulders touching. It is a beautiful experience of feeling equal with the one standing next to you. It is a genuinely humbling feeling.
If you have travelled in the local buses everywhere but America and Canada, the boys find it amusing to stand next to a girl and get thrills from the annoyance of the girls. You find a separate seating area for men and women to avoid such incidences.
At the school in Canada, the volunteers put a temporary barrier between boys and girls within the same cafeteria space. A Canadian Muslim organization is plugging the gender issue here to complicate the matters.
Consider the following cultural example. When you invite your friends to a party at your home, there will be times when the women hang out in patio or in other areas while men form their own little group in the kitchen or elsewhere -- you cannot tag that as a gender issue. It is the case of birds of the same feather flocking together.
If you are familiar with the subcultures, including Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Muslim, where men and women sit separately in the prayer halls, had those Muslims knew about it, they would not flaunt it as a Muslim issue.
The men and women at the Canadian Muslim Organization either do not understand the prayer format differential or too anxious to oppose Muslim "cultural" practices for the right purpose but on the wrong issue.
While the Christian, Jewish and Baha'i groups sit in pews during the prayer services, the Hindu, Jain, Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Sikhs sit on the folding chairs or on the floor. In both the formats the positioning is static. Either they stand or sit.
Years ago, I was given hard time by my female classmates in college for opening the car doors for them. I was an old fashioned guy; women first. Boy did I learn my lesson on gender equality the hard way, and I do not patronize my friends any more.
A friend shared his story about the blonde he dated to make a point about how women are conscious of their posture and appearance. He said she wore a mini-skirt, and they had to take two flights of stairs to visit their friends. She would not step ahead of him in climbing the stairs; that was another raw moment he had to endure. He did not understand her refusal to climb the stairs ahead of him. Then she taught him a lesson through demonstration. She said to him, OK, you come behind me, and she started climbing the stairs. When she was several steps ahead of him, she yelled back at him to come up, and when he looked up, he told me he had to imitate our Catholic friends with his hand gestures of making a cross and asking for forgiveness. That was the real first lesson about American culture he had.
Aren't women by nature conscious of their appearance and their postures? Very few women will lead you while climbing the steps; it is a natural instinct in most women.
The Muslim prayers involve four different postures from standing straight up to bending forwards to prostrating and sitting. If you are a woman, would you be comfortable with men behind your row during the prostration posture? This is not the gender issue; it is a combination of culture and prayer format. Now you know why Muslim women don't wear miniskirts! Or want to pray in a row in front of men.
Although gender issues persist in every culture, praying separately is not an issue with most women, whether Muslim, Hindu, Christian or otherwise. There is more to this and God willing I will offer solutions in the next post.