Sizzling Sex and Bacon

My sister likes to tell a story about a Columbia University Muslim student group iftaar (the prayer and meal held after a day of fasting during Ramadan) she attended when she was a student at Barnard College. She had stunned the conservative, young Muslim crowd by breaking the norm of gen¬der segregation and sitting at the same table with a male Moroccan student she knew. The rest of the group gaped at her as the two chatted. She says now that she wished she had been even bolder and placed her hand on his shoulder—what horror that would have caused!
The students stared at them because normally in gatherings, as I’ve said, Muslims divide up by gender. Some argue there is a Qur’anic basis for this—partially to preserve women’s modesty. However, from my perspective, such interpretations are quite lit¬eral, to a fault even, and do not take into account that we live in America, where men and women freely mingle. So my sister did it—she just sat and ate her meal with him. “We might as well have been having sex for the looks we got!” Aliya says. They just stared with their mouths hanging open. When Aliya shared a bagel with her friend, the rest of the group may have suffered cardiac problems.
Such segregation is usually the result of carrying over cul¬tural traditions from one’s native country. In Pakistan and other Islamic countries, the local mosque is merely a place to pray; that was particularly true at the time when today’s immigrants to America lived there. Women stayed home to watch the children and attend to home affairs. The Qur’an actually excuses women from praying at a mosque for that reason—to watch her children and the house. The mosque in these countries, though, is differ¬ent from an American mosque in an important way that behooves the equal inclusion of women. Mosques in America have been shaped in response to the model of American churches and synagogues: a place of worship as a community center for the group as well, where members of the faith can socialize and meet each other. Since my mosque is a community center and not merely a place to pray, I want to feel respected, not resentful. I want to feel that I am a part of the community. Many American mosques point to the fact that they have a women’s board of directors which assists the usually all-male board of directors that oversees all the mosque activities. To me it is yet another separation.
The absurdity of carrying over this mostly cultural tradition to the United States is evident in the friction Muslims like me and my sister who grew up here feel with this segregation. We’re Americans, and Brown v. Board of Education might as well be stamped on our foreheads: separate is inherently unequal and confers a badge of inferiority on the group that is separated. Women in Islam are not inferior. To separate them implies so. I’m tired of going to mosques and being told: “Sisters pray upstairs/in the basement/in the side rooms,” areas that are inevitably inferior in some respect, either having no heating or being too far away from the main prayer room to actually hear the imam’s khutba. Mothers are usually expected to take their children, both boys and girls, with them, to the sisters’ area. As a result, the sisters’ prayer area usually resembles an out-of-con¬trol day care center. It’s not easy to concentrate on praying. The balconies eerily remind me of the segregation the African- American community suffered through, as they were forced to sit in crowded balconies in churches, courtrooms and movie theaters, though of course the African-American community suffered much more than American Muslim women do.
I don’t see why we can’t all pray in the same room, split by gender down the middle of the room. If we are to be judged by God on Judgment Day with no distinction considered other than our piety, why can’t we pray in the same room? If men and women pray alongside each other in Mecca, why can’t we in our local mosque? If we are split down the middle, women and men don’t have to worry about prostrating in front of a person of the opposite sex, a potentially embarassing situation. Yet we can enjoy sharing prayer to God together, in one unified group, in one room. Muslims shall stand before God on Judgment Day like this in a mixed gender group.
When I tell this to men who defend separating women, they think I’m only trying to cause trouble. But this is really about respect. I want to know that I’m respected in my mosque and received as a peer, an equal. I do see the benefits of sepa¬ration in some situations, but at the mosque, our community center, I want to feel included, not excluded. Special protec¬tions are sometimes tantamount to the protectors’ saying, “You need to be protected because you’re weak and can’t do it your¬self.” Well let me watch out for myself, and you worry about yourself.
My uncle Adnan says that having women alongside while he prays would be distracting. He just wants to concentrate on God at this time, but he says, instead, he would be thinking about that girl near him praying. As with hijab, I feel that women are expected to modify their behavior because men say they have inadequacies and cannot control themselves. I can respect want¬ing to concentrate on God, but it’s hard for the women to concen¬trate if we’re freezing or if our kids are running around hitting each other. There is no Qur’anic basis for this distraction theory, and, no disrespect to my uncle, it sounds too much like men mak¬ing excuses to preserve their space.

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