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Why must prayers be segregated?

Why must prayers be segregated?


Wait, I don’t understand why gender separation is required while praying… shouldn’t the only thing on our minds be God, it does not matter whether it is a brother or sister standing next to us, as long as we’re all submitting to God…

Salaam alykum,

Every time this issue is brought up, there is a rather predictable set of opinions. There are also predictable posts of indignation, like the following message:

I will pray on Friday where I want. I will sit where I want. And the bearded bigots and women-haters in my mosque can stuff it. If they hate women, and find me disgusting and unclean, they are not welcome to pray in my presence. If they can’t get their minds out of the gutter long enough to pray, then they have no right to pray at all. Men are such animals.

Now, if we excuse the unnecessarily “colorful” language and the misguided indignation, let us pick up on two issues that plagues the entire premise of the above message’s argument.

First, it pretends that “bearded bigots” and “women-haters” are a cabal who have come together to shove women aside while laughing insanely. The reality is that in most cases the forces that seek to institute and create as much separation as possible are not “bearded bigots” but women themselves. As someone who has worked with several Mosques, Islamic institutions, and Muslim groups, this has been my experience.

It seems that this reality is something that those who find separation distasteful would not like to acknowledge, but, the reality is that the strongest proponents of walls, two-way mirrors, and other various apparatuses are in fact women.

The second issue is that there is this random interjection that the simple separation between the genders during prayer is predicated on women being classed as “disgusting” or “unclean,” as stated by the aforementioned message, and to be quite frank, this is a load of garbage, as there is nothing in the texts, in historical scholarship, nor have I ever heard of such language ever being used to describe women.

Yet one issue that every single discussion of this topic misses is the central point of why we do not share the same space when in prayer: to focus on our task at hand.

Now, you ask why does it matter if it’s a brother or a sister, and while it seems that sexual harassment of women in Muslim countries suddenly becomes a non-issue when it comes to praying next to each other, which is curious to me, the fundamental issue we have to re-evaluate is how we discuss the emotive element of interactions between people of different genders.

In simpler terms: when the discussion of why we pray separately is centered upon some sort of inclination towards sexual lust, this conversation becomes warped. It also strikes people of opposite genders as odd, mostly because of the way we assess what is attractive, and so when women speak about this they have a different perspective than men, which is something we try to deny when we discuss this for some reason. Now, while there are several studies which affirm this differentiation, what we have to beat into our heads is that by going the route of sexual attraction, in particularly lewd methods, this discussion will not only resonate less with some people, but it also dismisses the far more pervasive and subtle issue.

All over Tumblr I read posts which speak about how self-conscious everyone is, myself included, we are aware of our surroundings, of what people think, or even what people could possibly think about us, don’t we? Are there not thousands upon thousands of posts, per day, that discuss how you couldn’t focus in class because of that cute boy or that pretty girl?

And yet, when we discuss mixed prayers, we suddenly forget this? Are we going to dismiss it?

Forget about whether a man or a woman finds a person of the opposite gender sexually attractive, not just attractive, but in the lustful way that we normally discuss the issue, forget all about that, what if you are simply conscious of that person being there? What happens?

Don’t you tug at your shirt to make sure you look good? Don’t you worry about how you look in your clothes? Aren’t you aware of how you look, your mannerisms, all that stuff, when you are in front of people of the opposite gender? What about when you’re bending down for sujud or ruku’? How will your legs look? Your rear? Your arms?

The truth is that you can be distracted by nearly anything, but to try and assert that we live in a time or are capable of rising above this particular issue, in my mind, is questionable, especially when I look at what we post, how many “awk” situations you raise, not in Muslim settings, but in your everyday college and work situations. To then assert that during our time for prayer, that this distraction is not possible, if not nearly guaranteed  in my mind, is not a difference of opinion, because I can respect those, but truly a denial of reality.

This isn’t about sexual lust, this is even dismissing the possibility of mixed prayer being a place for abuse and harassment (which would be tragic, not sure if my soul could handle hearing about that happening), but about the pervasive problem of our self-conscious nature and how the separation between genders seeks to eliminate that distraction as much as possible.

Clothes can distract people too, even from the same gender, why do you think during the Hajj we are required to wear clothes that are the same? It is to break down our differences, to show our unity together, but also, to remove the distractions those facts can have on our prayer. To require this sort of uniform all the time would be unruly, but it doesn’t change the reality: prayer is to be focused upon and the methods and procedures of group prayer is directed towards eliminating as much room for that as possible.

So rather than looking at this as some sort of arbitrary distraction, reflect, because I know that when people sit near each other in a library they have a tough time studying, so we’re going to pretend that we can focus on prayer when we are standing next to the girl/boy of our dreams?

Finally, this is the methodology of prayer as established in the Sunnah, which we unfortunately do not uphold to the fullest degree, for instance, during the time of The Prophet, after congregational prayers were finished the men would stay while they waited for the women to leave so that they could leave at their pace and leisure, and this is one of the practices of The Prophet that we–unfortunately–do not uphold amongst ourselves.

Therefore, the issue is not the historical tradition of the Sunnah, but the fact that we do not establish it in its entirety.

I pray this reaches you and your families in the best of health and Iman, insha Allah.

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