“When we pray we bend over. If a guy was standing in front of me and bent over to pray what would I see? Butt. Ugh. I’m not at all interested in seeing some guy’s butt. But if a guy was standing behind me, he’d probably be very interested.” This is my sister-in-law, Zenita, explaining to me why they separate men and woman at the mosque.
So that is the reason: the butts. Good to know. Until this conversation, that explanation had never crossed my mind. At mosques, I had observed that women were seated in the balcony or if the mosque had only one story (like at my husband’s mosque, which is small) women sit in the back. When I observed these seating arrangement, I thought, “Women were being treated like second-class citizens for just being women. Why should the men always get the best seats in the house?” I assumed it was plain old sexism. Zenita’s explanation, while still sexist, at least has a reason behind it. According to Zenita, this practice is based on the belief that women have more mental self-control and won’t get as distracted as the men. Distracted, you know, by all the butts.
Muslims pray with kneeling and bending on a prayer rug (thus the butts). But Muslims are not the only ones; there are many spiritual practices in which people touch the earth in order to connect the Higher Power. Christians and Catholics kneel on a kneeler or the floor for a special prayers. Buddhists and Hindus kneel and bow as they pray. Jewish people kneel and bow down with their faces touching a mat or towel for the special holiday, Yom Kippur. Other spiritual practices, like yoga and meditation, are also done touching the earth or mat. So, every major religion-butts everywhere.
I’m a Christian so that makes me a kneeler. I find kneeling in a room full of people kind of embarrassing but I suspect that is partially the point. You are supposed to be focusing on God, not care if others are looking at you (which they probably aren’t anyway). Your focus should rise above any inhibitions or embarrassment.
I also do yoga, so that means I’m also a bender. I admit during yoga, if there is that rare male in the class, I try to place my mat far away from him and defiantly not in front of him. Like Zenita, I too am thinking, “I don’t want some guy to see my butt!” Imagine a female trying to focus on downward dog or forward bend knowing that there are male eyes right behind her. Plus, he’ll probably be sweaty and smelly after a few rounds and I’d rather not be close to any manly b.o. I know this is my own immaturity and if a male was looking at my butt it would be because of his own immaturity and ideally we should rise above our inner giggling schoolgirl/boy and just grow up and be adults. Yeah, yeah, I know.
If there was no other choice and I had to put my mat by a male in yoga class of course I would never do more then maybe sneak a sideways glance at him. I wouldn’t be giggling, pointing, making kissy noises or reach over and try to pinch his rear end. Such behavior and the teacher would ask me to leave. They would probably recommend I seek counseling, and later put my picture up with the caption- “Sexual Predator! Banned from Class.” If I was a male they would especially do all the above actions.
Back in the day (like 700 A.D), many men were more brutish and uncivilized than men are today and may have acted similar to the bad yoga behavior listed above or worse. At the mosque, women started complaining that they were being harassed. Separating the genders may have been the most practical way at that time to protect the women.
Today, many Muslim women are debating the practice of separating men and women. Is it still necessary? This debate is outlined in the news article, “Islam in America: When two women decided to pray with men.” (Dawn, Oct 18, 2014). The article covers Rahat Khan, a Muslim woman who is part of a campaign to demand equal rights for women inside the mosque. She refutes the interpretation of the Quran in its rule of separating men and women during prayer. The Quran states, “Men should stand in front during prayer and females should stand at the back, while children are in between.” That seems pretty straight forward to me but I guess since it says should instead of must then there is room for debate. Khan states that it is unfair that men get the prime spots in the mosque while women have to go to the balcony, back of the room, or even the basement. After all, if men decide to leer at women or have impure thoughts during prayer it is not the women’s fault.
I doubt this practice is actually necessary in America today. For the most part, men have progressed from acting like hoodlums and I would hope they would be able to act like mature adults during prayer. If people have their own mat to set boundary lines around their personal space, like in yoga, I don’t see where there would be a problem. The only ones who may have issues would be very immature teenage boys or adult men who know that they have difficulties focusing around members of the opposite sex. Teenage boys will probably do better praying by their dad, mom or grandmother rather than by a young female. Adult men who struggle with focusing with females present should just set their rugs down by other men or by the wall. Doing this, the people with the issues would be the ones who are inconvenienced and not the women.
However, there are some mosques that are so small, like the one here in Louisville, Kentucky, that my husband and in-laws attend, that they do not have the space for everyone to spread out their mats and have their own personal bubble. During holidays especially, things can get really cramped as people try to go through all the motions and movements of the prayer while being part of a crowd. While this situation is already uncomfortable in regards to personal space, it would be even more uncomfortable if males and females were mixed. What if you were to (gasp!) accidently touch someone’s butt? But even in crowded situations, why do women have to be the ones who get the back, balcony, or basement? After all, even those who may argue that the Quran says women are in the back so we put them in the back no matter what, tell me, where is the basis for putting women in the balcony or basement? After all, technically the balcony is not “the back” but “above,” and the basement would be “below.” Since the Quran did not specify who should go above or below these spots are up for grabs by either gender. Sometimes, balconies are in the front of the mosque so men who strongly believe that they should sit in the front could technically sit in those balconies.
Or people can just relax about the literal translation. Again, it states, “Men should stand in front during prayer and females should stand at the back, while children are in between.” These days we don’t let all the children be in the middle where they can play around with each other unattended to disturb everyone. It’s easier for people to just have their kid next to them. If we can relax about that how about we relax about the front and back part and separate the genders side-by-side instead? This side-by-side gender separation is done by Jewish people and certain Christian denominations. Muslims do this too, in some instances. Sometimes, Muslims need to rent spaces for larger events and the rented space happens to be in a shoebox-shaped with the long way parallel to the horizon. In this setting, if they were to separate by front and back there would not be enough space for the back part so they put a divider in the middle to separate the genders. This is only when they must rent a larger space for whatever reason. When mosques are built from scratch they do not typically put men and women side-by-side.
Another option would be to rotate the prime spots out on a week-by-week basis. Women can sit in the front this week or have the main space while men have the back, basement, or balcony. The following week they can switch.
Why am I making this such a big deal? There was another society in which certain citizens were told to sit in the back or in the balcony. This was the American South during segregation and it was black people who were treated like second class citizens. People may insist that the balcony or the back is not so bad, during American segregation they used the term “separate but equal,” but the equal part was never really true. Side-by-side in the same room or rotating the prime spots on a week-by-week basis would be a better way to do separate but equal. In American society where women have strived to have equal rights in all areas of their lives-home, marriage, society, the workplace- their place of worship can be another crucial step.
That afternoon with Zenita, after she tells me about the butt issue I suggest that Muslims should use kneelers and benches like Christians and Catholics so that the butts stay hidden. She offers me a tight-lipped, frosty smile and says, “Yeah, maybe you can put that in the suggestion box.” She is right, though. It would not work. Yoga would not be yoga if we used benches and kneelers. Meditation, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish prayer would also not be the same. You would lose the tradition and the connection to the earth. Tradition counts for a lot. Also, the practice of separating men and women is a tradition. Though some may find it distasteful, the practice of seating women in the lesser spots- the back, basement, or balcony-it is a tradition none the less.
When you say “But it’s tradition!” in religion that counts for more than saying “but it’s tradition!” in the workplace, school, or at home. In religion, progress is often slow since tradition carries so much weight. But shifts do occur. Christianly came about when Jesus said that many of the people Jews were being too caught up in rituals and traditions and we should instead refocus on God and love for the poor and one another. Later (16th century) during the Protestant Reformation, Christians separated from the Catholic Church for the same reasons-too much tradition with not enough focus on God. At these points in history, some people stayed with the traditional practices and others choose to do something different. There comes points in history where we must look at tradition and see if something needs to shift.
Female rights follow a similar pattern. Similar to religion, where the goal is to love God and one another in the best possible way, the goal of male and female interaction is also love. In my opinion, I think that the best way for men to love the women in their lives is not to put them on a pedestal and say, “Here is where I want you to sit. You will be safe up here.” No. Because “up here” in this instance is not really up here-it is in the basement, in the balcony, or in the back. It seems to me, a better way is to take her down and face her eye-to-eye. This is not just a wife, mother, or female body, this is another spiritual being. Maybe her soul is calling her to be in the front where she can better hear, and see and pray. Maybe she even wants to talk about religion or be a religious leader but she can’t because she does not have the same rights.
When females have rights they gain strength. As women joined the workforce they gained their own money, skills, and confidence so that they were able to stand on their own two feet and no longer had to financially depend on the men in their lives. The term “sexual harassment” and “equal opportunity employer” did not exist prior to 1960 and now women are able to raise their voice if they encounter lewd behaviors or sexual discrimination at work and have legal avenues available if necessary. The answer was not just keeping women protected at home but to give woman rights so they could fight their battles. Gaining the ability to stand did not cause women to just walk away from their husbands and children, as critics of the Women’s Liberation Movement feared they would. Women became better wives and mothers with relationships based on choice and respect rather than dependence. At the same time they made the workplace a better place with their own unique contributions and ideas.
If women were given equality in religious institutions imagine the spiritual strength they could gain and how they could then use that strength to contribute to their place of worship. Female power in religion has thus far remained untapped, at least in all the major religions.
Today, some Christian denominations have female ministers and leaders but this is relatively rare and some people continue to criticize female leaders just for the fact that they are female. From time to time, the minister at my church says comments like women do not have the gift of speaking in front of the church. Those comments always got under my skin and I would take them in silence. Next time, I will write a nice letter to the minister and say something like, “Great service, thanks! Just wanted to let you know, maybe women do have the gift of speaking in the front of the church. I’m a pretty good public speaker so you guys don’t know what you’re missing.”
In the mosque, most women at this point are not even asking to speak in the front, some women just want to be in the front.
It seems to me that men and women are trying to move toward the same goal. We practice religion for connection to God. Though this connection we gain peace and guidance on how to life our lives in a good way that is more loving toward one another. If the tradition of a religion is doing the opposite by showing less love toward a group by putting that group of people lower than the rest, it is worth taking a closer look at that tradition.
Women can start by talking to each other, talking with their husbands and family members, or writing about their views. In doing these things we can all start to move forward to the place where we need to be. To a place where men and women are truly equal in every area of their lives. Women can talk about all the ifs, ands, buts and butts that are holding them back.