Monday, February 19, 2007

Exploring Gender Issues in Muslim Communities: Extremes and Balance

For a while now, I've been reading stuff in the news and on various blogs (Muslim and otherwise) regarding gender segregation and homosexuality. Specifically, the link between gender segregation and homosexuality.

Read the following for background info: (it's the actual post you should read; ignore the comments... or you could of course read the comments, but just to let you know, I haven't)

Now, for what I have to say:

Even though I live in Canada, my parents have been (and are) pretty strict about gender segregation. It is one of the (many) reasons why I was taken out of public school in grade 5 and have been homeschooling since.
At the Islamic centre my dad used to run, we weren't like some of the other masaajid and Islamic centres - gender segregation was something that was emphasized, along with hijaab and lowering of the gazes (which I guess is pretty much a part of gender segregation). Men and women had separate entrances, and they were never 'friendly' with each other (i.e. no one made small talk or acted overly familiar with each other; if we did have to communicate, we did so in a business-like manner).
All in keeping with the Sunnah... al-Hamdulillaah.

However, this is just one Islamic centre in a non-Muslim country, and outside of it all of us - whether we liked it or not - had some sort of regular contact with the opposite gender, whether it be at school, work, or the supermarket. Somehow or another, we learnt how to deal with members of the opposite gender in an appropriate manner; a manner in which we stuck to the principles of Islam and did not adopt the overly-familiar Western manner of gender interaction, yet we also managed to go about our daily business and do what needed to be done.

In the Muslim world, however, the situation is quite different – in certain countries gender segregation is strictly enforced, and due to it severe issues arise… such as that of homosexuality (as mentioned in the two articles above).

It is this which I wish to discuss: the cases of extremity in regards to gender segregation/interaction, and how to achieve a balance between them.

There are two extremes that are seen with regards to gender segregation:
In the one case, males and females are kept totally apart from each other, unless they are Mahrams. Interaction between the genders is restricted in (almost) all other spheres of life.
In the other case, there are absolutely no barriers between males and females, and they are actually encouraged to pursue any type of relationship with each other that they wish.

The first case is what’s seen in certain areas of the Muslim world (Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iran being three such examples), and it is this case which is discussed in the two articles linked to above.

There are those who say that this type of gender segregation - extreme segregation - is bad for us, as individuals and as a society. As individuals, we do not learn how to deal with people of the opposite gender, which can lead to difficulties and complications in relationships, whether they be personal or professional; as a society it can impact us in a very deep way - the results being such as those described in the articles.

A good point that I've seen/read made by many is that this kind of extreme gender segregation ends up reducing men and women as purely sexual objects to each other. In these cases, interaction with the other gender is totally forbidden because it will lead to 'bad things'.
Yet what is not taken into account is that, if properly established and maintained, interaction with someone of the opposite gender can actually be beneficial. Men and women can be peers, can learn together, can share and debate ideas, can work together on a project - *without* it leading to 'bad things'.

All that needs to be done is make sure that there is a proper distance being kept. Islamic rules and guidelines need to be followed. Hijaab needs to be observed - by both parties.

It sounds simple enough... right? But there are far too many people who think that men should be only ones allowed to participate in public activities; that women should stay within the four walls of their home, cooking, cleaning, and raising children. Yet they forget that the Sahaabiyaat, the female companions of the Prophet (SAW) were more than just mothers and wives; they too learnt their Deen from the Prophet (SAW), and in turn they too taught others about the finer points of al-Islam. The Sahaabiyaat were not the only ones - throughout Islamic history there were great women scholars, many of whose students became famous teachers in their own right. And nowadays, the scope of teaching extends beyond religious teaching, and into such fields as literature, medicine, various sciences, and even engineering.

Then we have the second case, the one we see here in the West. Barriers between men and women are extremely discouraged; there is almost no limits put on the contact between men and women, and they are free to – nay, they are encouraged to – become very much involved with each other… in more ways than one.

In both cases mentioned above, the extremes lead to perversions: Rising homosexuality in the Muslim world; and of course we all know about the promiscuity of the West. Enforced deprivation and gross excess can both lead to disgusting perversions – which we are now seeing, quite graphically illustrated.

My question is, then: How do we deal with these extremes?

Wait, scratch that.

I think we’ve all read enough articles and heard enough lectures about how to deal with the fitnah of the West – so let’s discuss what we don’t read and hear about so much: the case of extreme segregation and the issues that appear as a result in the societies where it is enforced.

So then: How do we Muslims find the balance between these two extremes? How do we restrict the relationships between non-Mahram men and women, in keeping with the Sunnah, yet also be able to learn how to develop certain proper relationships between ourselves and members of the opposite gender?

We know that the Sahaabah and Sahaabiyaat did not mix and socialize with each other as men and women do today, yet we also know that they did have regular contact and interaction with each other.

How can we achieve that balance?

Another thing came to my mind regarding this issue:

The extreme gender segregation/lack of segregation is something that is also a rather controversial issue within various Muslim communities. For example, some masaajid/ Islamic centres who consider themselves more ‘modern’ or ‘progressive’ will go for ‘breaking the barriers’ between men and women; whereas other more traditional (aka ‘Wahhabi’ and ‘Salafi’) groups will keep the separation.

Within the congregations of these masaajid and Islamic centres there are quite a few discussions and debates about it – but what I’m thinking about is, what happens when the gender segregation/lack thereof is enforced in Muslim schools?

The two things that I’ve seen are, the schools with no segregation end up becoming little better than public schools (the guys and girls become very comfortable and familiar with each other, and in the older grades boyfriends and girlfriends become common… my dad, who was once an Islamic studies teacher at one of these schools, actually caught a couple making out under the stairwell); and in the schools that are totally segregated (separate classes for the guys and girls), especially from younger grades, they end up not knowing how to properly interact with each other and that in turn leads to some major issues later on.

The question remains: How do we deal with these issues?


Farzeen said...

Assalaamu'alaykum wa rahmatu Allah sis

Interesting topic.

There may not be a simple solution for this, but as always the starting point is in Islamic teachings - that's where the balance is. My understanding is that our way includes some level of interaction with well-defined limits. This must include an understanding of the immediate dangers of transgressing those limits - in either direction.

The environment isn't the root of the problems that you've described. They certainly do contribute to the problems, but they aren't the cause because it is possible for many Muslims to attend public schools without compromising their deen in any way.. and I would imagine (I have no firsthand experience of this) that people can attend segregated schools and still be competent in dealing with the other gender. Anything is possible.

It's important to consider the state of heart and mind. Parents, especially so, need to connect with their children, talk to them, be approachable, and create an atmosphere where their children don't feel as though they have to hide their thoughts/feelings. From young, children need to be taught higher values and to think critically about what they accept or dismiss in life. (This all is much easier said than done.) Even if people haven't learnt that from young, change is possible (this is a whole topic in itself).

I think the key is in iman (faith), taqwa (consciousness of God), and the development of wholesome and strong values. There are non-Muslims, though rare, who don't succumb wholeheartedly to the perversions of society. Why? Because they have values that transcend the typical, and they hold strong to it. It gives them, and Muslims who hold to the deen, something sweeter than the illusion of happiness that society tends to dictate.

That's my two cents worth on the topic.

iMuslim said...

Assalamu 'alaykum wa rahmatullah Mouse

Mashallah, there is little to add to sister Farzeen's comment, except my agreement with it! hehe

Balance is essential, otherwise one loses focus. Taboos have a power of their own; they can become magnetic, drawing people towards them.

It is important to know the dangers of zina, and how adhorrent it is to Allah, but zina should not be on our minds so often (even in the negative sense) that we become obsessed and haunted by it. It is like giving power to the demons.

I was actually speaking about this topic with my friend on the train home. So many Muslim school girls in East London are falling into 'bad ways'; teenage pregnancy and even worse. The generation gap between the parents and children means that the former have no idea of the dangers & challenges that the latter group face, in order that they may be equipped with the tools to fight them. Of course, the kids know well enough that their parents would kill them if they found out about their behavior, but it doesn't stop them from doing it; they just hide their misdeeds better.

It is almost like the Muslim girls are throwing themselves into fitna, just to see what the fuss is about; whereas the non-Muslim kids are so sick of their problems, they are trying harder to leave them behind... it's a little twisted. That's what i mean by taboos becoming magnetic.

May Allah protect our youth, and help us to guide them.

Ify Okoye said...

Asalamu alaykum,

I think we all just need a good dose of common sense, lowering the gaze, and less barriers.

Anonymous said...

Alhamdulillah, it seems your comments feed is back up! As is Br Amad's... but y'know what?


I've caught the comments feed lurgy.

nuh ibn zbigniew gondek said...

As salaam alaikum.

I wrote a reflection about this issue a while ago:

Allah (swt) made this a world of contradictions, these opposites combine as one.

light and darkness,
infinite and finite
giving and withholding,
form and matter,
quantity and quality,
is and not.

At their junction, creation is formed: Neither can exist without the other, all function together as a single whole.

They are just contradictions - Allah (swt) is none of them. Al-Bari' mixes them and matches them justly.

AnonyMouse said...

As-salaamu 'alaikum wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatu,

Aahhhhhh, so sorry for not replying or updating sooner!!! Life is crazy... I'm gonna become manic-depressive soon is this keeps up! :S Please make du'aa for me that stuff (especially school!!) settles down and becomes easier for me, insha'Allah...

Anyway, shukran jazeelan for all your replies! Masha'Allah, sis Farzeen made some great points! And I think sis Muslim Apple summarized it perfectly: common sense, lowering the gaze, and less barriers!

Brother Nuh, your poem reminded me of yin and yang... :P

iMuslim - yep, brother Amad fixed it for me! :) If yours still isn't working, I'll send you the thingy that fixes it...

And that's all for now, folks - insha'Allah when I have more time (read: am finished piles of homework assignments and stop banging my head against walls due to kids at the Madrasah) I'll type up another post...

Your little sister in Islam,

Anonymous said...

Assalam Alaikum sister in islam,

The question you have brought up is of extreme importance in today's society. A lot of us struggle with what the right course of action should be.

The way I look at this situation which is something I recently mentioned in my blog is, what would our beloved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) have done if he were here today in this situation?

In every action we ponder, we must keep the sunnah of the Prophet in mind and the Qur'an as our guide. Granted we may not know all the sunnahs and/or the entire message of the Qur'an; in which case we should draw upon trusted sources who have such knowledge. In the end remember that we will be standing alone on the Day of Judgement with nobody to support us or bail us out. We will have to answer to Allah for every decision we made. If you are comfortable representing yourself to the world in one way, ask yourself if the Prophet would have approved and if Allah will reward you for that on that day. Inshallah if we incorporate an active islamic approach to all decisions in life, Allah will guide us to the right choices. Ameen.

Anonymous said...

Salaam 'Alaikum

Honestly? I'd like to know where there is an Islamic school in North America where any kind of separation between girls and boys -- esp. in the higher grades -- is practiced. This is an anethema if you mention it to board members, in my experience. I've seen Islamic high schools, and I fear their detrimental effects on the kids and the community as a whole. There is nothing wrong with single-gendered scholing, esp. at the higher grades. When the non-Muslims do it at their private schools, it's "elite" and people tend to shell out big bucks for it. But when it's us, then it becomes, "Oh they'll never learn how to relate to one another, oh this is oppressive for the girls," as if they aren't living the other 18 hours of their day in a completely unsegregated, sexualized society.

Just my 2 qursh.

Umm Zaid

Anonymous said...

Perhaps partial segregation is the best thing to go with - at my old school we were together for classes but separated during break, gym, etc and seated separately as well.
I don't know - in the end I think that those who want to do something 'bad' will, and those who won't, won't.
Partial segregation, for me at least, worked pretty well because I learned to interact respectfully, but I didn't have enough 'access' or exposure to the boys to actually get into anything 'bad'.
Just my two cents.