A beautiful piece written by one of our students after a visit to our campus by Imam Suhaib Webb (hafidhahullah - may God preserve him):
I've grown up going to a masjid in which the men and women are separated by a wall. To compromise between the camp that wanted the wall and the one which didn't at the time of the masjid's construction, the wall had a large window. Then, the women who did want a wall covered the large window with duct tape, so the men on the other side would not be able to see them. For all of my adult life, there was something about this arrangement that I knew I didn't like, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Was it my western notions of equality that were impeding my ability to understand the preferences of some of the men and women in the congregation? Was it my naivety, assuming that the wall was a symbol of rampant sexism when it was actually a trivial matter? Was I simply unable to understand that the wall was put up for the sake of convenience, so the wails of children could be localized to the women's room and be kept away from the men during prayer? Was I being foolish in arguing that in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (SA) there was no separation, and that the same convention should still be followed?
During Ramadan, 2011, the women in my Masjid were asked to pray in the trailer because they were running out of room in the masjid. This, I was told, would be a temporary arrangement, and the one woman on the masjid committee had given her tacit approval that this would be a decision supported by the women of the congregation. Although the decision was reversed after several nights of tantrums and tears and late night meetings, it was repealed, and the committee members apologized profusely for allowing something that could be construed as sexist to pass.
Yet, my soul was still left with a great unease. It wasn't until last night that I could fully understand the cause of it. When Imam Suhaib Webb, who was recently appointed to be the imam of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, came to visit our university's campus in Providence, Rhode Island, all of those feelings of unease made sense and I could finally admit to myself that my discomfort was NOT a product of my western upbringing, or flawed idealistic logic. The agitation I felt stemmed from the feeling that the wall, or the trailer, or whatever else it would be, fundamentally opposed my concept of what it means to be a Muslim. Islam, as Imam Suhaib said, came as a religion that dignified the human experience. It gave people meaning, purpose, and beauty, it instituted principles of democracy, fairness, and justice. The deen was never meant to chastise, it was meant to elevate. Imam Suhaib listed many examples of situations in which he and those he knew tried to act on this principle of preserving human dignity. He argued that this should be one of the foundational principles on which we practice our religion, and that we should never turn anyone away. If you see someone who's struggling with a problem, help them, he instructed. Everyone has their own faults. Islam, he said, is weakened by the way that most of us are now inclined to think of it: as a force that always says no.
And then, he got into the issue of the wall. When he spoke, the matter suddenly seemed so clear. Why should women pray behind a wall? There was no wall in the Prophet's time. Yet, we've now come to accept the wall as a part of the standard American masjid. How can someone praying behind a wall have a dignified human experience? If the simple act of going to the mosque to pray comes with it the principle that women should be not seen, not heard, but shoved away in the back, how can they feel that their religion is empowering them? Why are we letting this become an acceptable social trend?
With regards to the women who themselves want the wall because they believe the brothers are "looking at them," Imam Suhaib argued passionately that this played into the hyper-sexualization that he considers one of the biggest challenges to Muslims in America today. This hyper-sexualization leads to even more problems between the genders. Nowadays, he said, if a brother greets a sister with salam, it can be considered inappropriate, even though salam is one of the rights of every Muslim. He said: "You are coming to pray in the House of Allah. And if you are using that to check out some aunties, I would say you've got some mental issues. And if you are the old aunties going to your imam and saying that that's what happening, you've got some issues too."
Imam Suhaib also told a story about a masjid in which there was not enough room for the men to pray, so some of the men asked the imam if the women could be moved upstairs. The imam's response was to ask the men why they were asking him instead of the women. This made me think back to my own mosque, and remember that when the women were asked, many of them considered the matter a non-issue, and many of those who did consider it an issue wanted to be in the trailer. They wondered how more separation from the men could ever be a bad thing. Yet, to me, the matter was, and is still, simple. It was religiously ordained that men and women pray separately. Men in the front, children in the middle, and women in the back. We are taught that we should strive to follow sunnah in every dimension of our lives- who am I to claim that the women praying behind the men is not enough of a separation if it was enough for the Prophet (SA)?
I am a Muslim woman growing up in America. I am a student at one of the most liberal institutions of higher learning in America, and I absolutely love it. The Muslim Students Association here is a place in which I have been able to practice my faith in the most rewarding and uplifting ways possible. I don't say that because we believe in rewriting the rules that Allah (SWT) set for us. We do not contradict Quran or Sunnah. But we do believe that Islam is a beautiful religion and that, as Muslims, we are meant to appreciate the inherent beauty and equality in Allah's creation- and that includes both men and women. As I grow up, mature, and learn more about Islam, I am touched by all of the beautiful facets of it I've never noticed before. And every time I think of walls, or duct tape, or trailers, my faith in my religion does not waver, but my faith in humanity does. We are living in a day and age when we Muslims are already seen as close minded and backward. Why do we ourselves continue to box ourselves in to these stereotypes? As Imam Suhaib so elegantly put it, "The Cold War is over- so why do we still put up walls?"