Gender segregation and Islam
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Islam discourages free mixing between men and women (known as Ikhtilat (Arabic: اختلاط)), especially when alone, but not all forms of interaction. The intention of all restrictions is to keep interaction at a modest level. They may, for instance, socialize in order to know each other as ordained by God in the Quran (Surah al-Hujurat), as long as there is no obscenity, touching, secret meetings or flirting, according to the general rules of interaction between the genders.
There is no evidence from the Quran or Hadith that enforces the segregation of sexes. In fact, there is actually evidence of the opposite. Notable Canadian scholar Sheikh Ahmad Kutty has said segregation of the sexes is not a requirement in Islam, as men and women used to interact during Muhammed's time without any partitions.
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."
"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."
Muhammad specifically admonished the men not to keep their wives from going to the mosques:
Ibn Omar reported,
- 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)
It is clear from the following hadith that in some mosques, the women prayed behind the men and were not separated in a separate room or even concealed by a curtain or partition where there wasn't one available (where the screen is practiced in many mosques today, and in the past, it is as a precaution to prevent unnecessary socializing and distraction during prayers):
Asma' daughter of Abu Bakr said,
- I heard the Apostle of God say, "One of you who believes in God and in the Last Day should not raise her head until the men raise their heads lest she should see the private parts of men."(Sunan Abu Dawud, No. 850).
Sex segregation in Islamic countries
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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. The Prophet helped his wives in the house.
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."
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". In a weekly presidential address in November 2001 Laura Bush also accused the Taliban of practicing "gender apartheid". 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".
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." 
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.
In Saudi Arabia, a male doctor is not allowed to treat a female patient, unless there are no female specialists available; and it is also not permissible for women to treat men.
A woman is also not allowed to meet her spouse unveiled until after the wedding. Saudi daughters are encouraged to wear the niqāb in public. Religious Saudis believe it is forbidden for a woman to eat in public, as part of her face would be exposed, so in most restaurants barriers are present to conceal women.
Of the late 1800s and early 1900s 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." The active political role of the women of the Yishuv, and their lack of segregation, was judged as particularly offensive.
Sex segregation in mosques
- 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.
Muhammad is also recorded to have said: "The best places of prayer for women are the innermost apartments of their houses"
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".
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.
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. 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. 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 Prophet 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."
As Islam spread, it became unusual for women to worship in mosques because of male fear of immorality between sexes.
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.
Many mosques today will 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.
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.
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Gender segregation and Islam|
- Gender apartheid
- Awrah (covering of body parts)
- Women's mosques
- Polygyny in Islam
- Marriage in Islam
- Female labor force in the Muslim world
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