Islam and gender segregation

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Gender segregation in Islamic law, custom and traditions refers to the practices and requirements in Islamic countries and communities for the separation of men and boys from women and girls in social and other settings.

Scholars differ as to whether the Qur'an requires gender segregation, and, if so, the hadith that require it.[1][2][3][4][3][5] There are diverging opinions among experts in Islamic theology concerning gender segregation. On one side of the spectrum, an Islamic theologian in Canada, Ahmad Kutty, has said segregation of the sexes is not a requirement in Islam, as men and women interacted in Muhammed's time without any partitions.[5] On the other side of the spectrum, an Islamic theologian in Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak, has issued a death warrant in the form of a fatwa against those who allow the mixing of the sexes.[6]


There are diverging opinions among experts in Islamic theology concerning gender segregation.

There have been fatwas which forbid free mixing between men and women (known as Ikhtilat), especially when alone. The objective of the restrictions is to keep such interaction at a modest level. Islamic jurisprudent laws have traditionally ruled that Muslim men and women who are not immediate relatives may not, for instance, socialize in order to know each other with a handshake (for any reason) and any form of contact which involves physical contact, and even verbal contact to a certain extent.[7][8][9]

A number of westernized Muslim intellectuals and Muslim scholars in Southeast Asia have challenged this view and claim that certain physical contact is permissible as long as there is no obscenity, inappropriate touching (other than a simple handshake), secret meetings or flirting, according to the general rules of interaction between the genders.[10]


The Qur'anic verses which address the interaction of men and women in the social context include:

Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity: this will be most conducive to their purity – (and,) verily, Allah is aware of all that they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms beyond what may be apparent thereof; hence let them draw their veils over their bosoms and do not show their adornments except to their husbands or their fathers or their husbands' fathers or their sons or their husbands' sons or their brothers or their brothers' sons or their sisters' sons or their women or what their right hands possess or male servants free of sexual desires or those children who never knows the private things of women; and do not stamp their feet so that it may show their hidden adornments; and repent towards God collectively O believers so that you may succeed.

— Qur'an, Sura 24 (An-Nur), ayat 27-31[11]

O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.

— Qur'an, Sura 33 (Al-Ahzab), ayat 59[12]

Muhammad specifically admonished the men not to keep their wives from going to the mosques:

Ibn Umar (Abdullah bin Umar) reported what is translated as:

The Messenger of God said, "Do not prevent the maid-servants of God from going to the mosque."

— Muslim, No.888 (See also Nos. 884-891 and Bukhari Vol.1, Nos. 824, 832)

In Islamic countries[edit]


Afghanistan, under Taliban religious leadership, was characterized by feminist groups and others as a "gender apartheid" system where women are segregated from men in public and do not enjoy legal equality or equal access to employment or education. In Islam women have the right to equal access to employment and education, although their first priority should be that of the family. Men too are said to be actively involved in the child rearing and household chores. Muhammad helped his wives in the house.[13][14]

In 1997 the Feminist Majority Foundation launched a "Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan", which urged the United States government and the United Nations to "do everything in their power to restore the human rights of Afghan women and girls." The campaign included a petition to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.N. Assistant Secretary General Angela King which stated, in part, that "We, the undersigned, deplore the Taliban's brutal decrees and gender apartheid in Afghanistan."[15]

In 1998 activists from the National Organization for Women picketed Unocal's Sugar Land, Texas office, arguing that its proposed pipeline through Afghanistan was collaborating with "gender apartheid".[16] In a weekly presidential address in November 2001 Laura Bush also accused the Taliban of practicing "gender apartheid".[17] The Nation referred to the Taliban's 1997 order that medical services for women be partly or completely suspended in all hospitals in the capital city of Kabul as "Health apartheid".[18]

According to the Women's Human Rights Resource Programme of the University of Toronto Bora Laskin Law Library "Throughout the duration of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the term "Gender Apartheid" was used by a number of women's rights advocates to convey the message that the rights violations experience by Afghan women were in substance no different than those experienced by blacks in Apartheid South Africa." [19]


When Ruhollah Khomeini called for women to attend public demonstration and ignore the night curfew, millions of women who would otherwise not have dreamed of leaving their homes without their husbands' and fathers' permission or presence, took to the streets. After the Islamic revolution, however, Khomeini publicly announced his disapproval of mixing between the sexes.[20]

Saudi Arabia[edit]

In Saudi Arabia, male doctors were not allowed to treat female patients in the past, unless there were no female specialists available; and it was also not permissible for women to treat men.[21] This has changed, however, and it is not uncommon for men and women to visit doctors of the opposite sex.

Mandate Palestine[edit]

Of the late 19th and early 20th century European Jewish immigration to Palestine, Norman Rose writes that secular "Zionist mores" were "often at odds with Arab convention, threatening the customs and moral assumptions that lent cohesion to a socially conservative, traditional Palestinian society."[22] The active political role of the women of the Yishuv, and their lack of segregation, was judged as particularly offensive.[23]

In mosques[edit]

The ladies' prayer hall in the Khadija Mosque in Berlin

[verification needed]Some schools of thought[who?] claim that Muhammad preferred women to pray at home rather than at a mosque. According to one hadith, a supposed recounting of an encounter with Muhammad, he said:[verification needed]

I know that you women love to pray with me, but praying in your inner rooms is better for you than praying in your house, and praying in your house is better for you that praying in your courtyard, and praying in your courtyard is better for you than praying in your local mosque, and praying in your local mosque is better for you than praying in my mosque.[24]

Muhammad is also recorded to have said: "The best places of prayer for women are the innermost apartments of their houses".[25]

Some schools of thought interpret these hadith as signs that women should be encouraged to pray at home rather than in a mosque. However, other schools prefer to look at the context of the sayings, which they suggest were given at a time when women were in danger when leaving their homes, and consider mosques as welcome for women as their homes. Muhammad did not forbid women from entering his mosque in Medina. In fact, he told Muslims "not to prevent their women from going to mosque when they ask for permission".[26]

However, segregation of sexes in mosques and prayer spaces is reported in a hadith in Sahih Muslim, one of the two most authentic Hadith books in Islam. It says that the best rows for men are the first rows, and the worst ones the last ones, and the best rows for women are the last ones and the worst ones for them are the first ones.[27]

It is also recorded that Muhammad ordered that mosques have separate doors for women and men so that men and women would not be obliged to go and come through the same door.[28] He also commanded that after the Isha' evening prayer, women be allowed to leave the mosque first so that they would not have to mix with men.[29] But it has not been reported that there was any barrier between men and women in the prophet's mosque.

After Muhammad's death, many of his followers began to forbid women under their control from going to the mosque. Aisha bint Abi Bakr, a wife of Muhammad, once said, "If the Prophet had lived now and if he saw what we see of women today, he would have forbidden women to go to the mosque even as the Children of Israel forbade their women."[30]

The second caliph Umar also prohibited women from attending mosques especially at night because he feared they may be sexually harassed or assaulted by men, and he asked them to pray at home.[31]

As Islam spread, it became unusual for women to worship in mosques because of male fear of immorality between sexes.[32]

Sometimes a special part of the mosque was railed off for women. For example, the governor of Mecca in 870 had ropes tied between the columns to make a separate place for women.[33]

The male section of a mosque in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, India.

Many mosques today put the women behind a barrier or partition or in another room. Mosques in South and Southeast Asia put men and women in separate rooms, as the divisions were built into them centuries ago. In nearly two-thirds of American mosques, women pray behind partitions or in separate areas, not in the main prayer hall; some mosques do not admit women at all due to the lack of space and the fact that some prayers, such as the Friday Jumuʻah, are mandatory for men but optional for women. Although there are sections exclusively for women and children, the Grand Mosque in Mecca is desegregated.[34]

There is a growing women's movement led by figures such as Asra Nomani who protest against what they regard as their second-class status and facilities.[35][36]

Justifications for segregation, include the need to avoid distraction during prayer, although the primary reason cited is that this was the tradition (sunnah) of worshipers in the time of Muhammad.[37]


British-born Muslim author Ed Husain argues that rather than keeping sexual desires under check, gender segregation creates "pent-up sexual frustration which expressed itself in the unhealthiest ways," and leads young people to "see the opposite gender only as sex objects." [38] While working in Saudi Arabia for seven months as an English teacher, the Arabic-speaking Husain was surprised to find that despite compulsory gender segregation and full hijab, Saudi men were much less modest and more predatory towards women than men in other countries he had lived. In Saudi – unlike in Britain, or the more secular Syrian Arab Republic – students commonly downloaded hardcore pornography off the internet in violation of school rules. Despite the modest dress of his wife – who "out of respect for local custom, ... wore the long black abaya and covered her hair in a black scarf" – she was on two occasions "accosted by passing Saudi youths from their cars. ... In supermarkets I only had to be away from [my wife] for five minutes and Saudi men would hiss or whisper obscenities as they walked past." Discussions with local women at the British Council indicated that her experience was far from unique.[38]

See also[edit]

Case studies:


  1. ^ Answered by Sheikh Sâmî al-Mâjid. "Woman sitting in the company of her husband in the presence of male guests | IslamToday - English". Islam Today. Retrieved 2013-08-03.
  2. ^ "Segregation of the Sexes - Social Life - counsels". OnIslam. 2012-05-31. Retrieved 2013-08-03.
  3. ^ a b "Fatawa - Co-ed vs. girls only school". Dar al-Ifta al Misriyyah. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  4. ^ "Fatawa - Is it permissible for a woman or a man to eat at a restaurant where there is no gender segregation?". Dar al-Ifta al Misriyyah. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  5. ^ a b "Ask The Scholar". Ask The Scholar. Retrieved 2013-08-03.
  6. ^ Editorial, Reuters. "Saudi cleric backs gender segregation with fatwa".
  7. ^هل-سلام-المرأة-باليد-على-الرجال-حرام
  8. ^ "حكم مصافحة الرجل للمرأة الأجنبية -". Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  9. ^ "تحريم مصافحة المرأة الأجنبية - إسلام ويب - مركز الفتوى". Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  10. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-09. Retrieved 2011-07-10.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  11. ^ Quran 24:30–31
  12. ^ Quran 33:59
  13. ^ Hunter, D. Lyn. Gender Apartheid Under Afghanistan's Taliban The Berkleyan, March 17, 1999.
  14. ^ The Taliban & Afghan Women: Background, Feminist Majority Foundation website, Accessed June 25, 2006.
  15. ^ Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan Archived 2007-06-29 at the Wayback Machine (PDF), Global Petition Flyer, Feminist Majority Foundation.
  16. ^ Women Around the Globe Face Threats to Human Rights Archived 2007-08-07 at the Wayback Machine, National Organization for Women, Fall 1998.
  17. ^ Otis, John. First lady slams 'gender apartheid', Houston Chronicle News Service, November 18, 2001.
  18. ^ Block, Max. Kabul's Health Apartheid, The Nation, November 24, 1997.
  19. ^ Women in Afghanistan Archived 2005-12-17 at the Wayback Machine, Women's Human Rights Resource Programme, University of Toronto Bora Laskin Law Library.
  20. ^ Roksana Bahramitash. "Revolution, Islamization, and Women's Employment in Iran" (PDF). Watsoninstitute. Retrieved 2013-09-09.
  21. ^ Haghian (1988).
  22. ^ Norman Rose, A Senseless, Squalid War: Voices from Palestine 1945-1948, The Bodley Head, London, 2009. (p. 10)
  23. ^ Porath, Zipporah, Letters from Jerusalem, 1947-1948, Jerusalem: Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, 1987 (p. 26-30)
  24. ^ Abu Dawud in al-Sunan, Bāb mā jā’a fī khurūj al-nisā’ ilá al-masjid: Bāb al-tashdīd fī dhālik, p. 133
  25. ^ Doi, Rahi. "Ruling on women going to the masjid". Islam Q&A. Retrieved 2010-03-15.
  26. ^ Doi, Rahi. "Can women go to mosque?". Questions on Islam. Retrieved 2010-03-15.
  27. ^ "Sahih Muslim, Book 4, Hadith 881". Archived from the original on 2011-10-15. Retrieved 2012-09-09.
  28. ^ al-Sunan al-Kubrá, vol. 1, p. 109.
  29. ^ al-Sunan al-Kubrá, vol. 2, p. 558
  30. ^ Tafsīr al-Qurṭubī, 14:244
  31. ^ Doi, Abdur Rahman I. "Women in Society". Compendium of Muslim Texts. University of Southern California. Archived from the original on April 9, 2006. Retrieved 2006-04-15.
  32. ^ Mattson, Ingrid. "Women, Islam, and Mosques". In Encyclopedia of Women And Religion in North America (Rosemary Skinner Keller, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Marie Cantlon, ed.). Indiana University Press (2006), p. 616. ISBN 0-253-34688-6.
  33. ^ Hillenbrand, R. "Masdjid. I. In the central Islamic lands". In P.J. Bearman; Th. Bianquis; C.E. Bosworth; E. van Donzel; W.P. Heinrichs (eds.). Encyclopaedia of Islam Online. Brill Academic Publishers. ISSN 1573-3912.
  34. ^ Rezk, Rawya (2006-01-26). "Muslim Women Seek More Equitable Role in Mosques". The Columbia Journalist. Archived from the original on 2006-05-27. Retrieved 2006-04-09.
  35. ^ [1] Archived August 9, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  36. ^ Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America: Women and religion ... - Google Books. 2006. ISBN 9780253346865. Retrieved 2013-09-09.
  37. ^ Smith, Jane L. Islam in America. Columbia University Press (2000): p111. ISBN 0-231-10967-9.
  38. ^ a b Husain, Ed, The Islamist: Why I joined Radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left, Penguin Books, 2007, p. 244

External links[edit]