A Muslimah writes
As wedding season comes to a close, many young Muslims will be scrolling through the photos from occasions of their friends and family members who tied the knot, also dreaming of their big day. But one thing that Muslim millenials seem not to be considering when it comes to social events, be it marriage related or otherwise, is whether such events should be segregated.
Whilst the idea of segregation is not unheard of in Muslim communities, most have relegated this to the mosque or religious events. Men and women sitting in separate sections, or in areas next to each other or one behind the other are common sights at talks, Islamic societies/MSAs, or Muslim charity dinners, often with a separate area for families.
For many Muslims, such a set up seems only relevant for these areas, catering for the more traditional Islamic sensitivities of others. But the fact is, that segregation is a practice that has been ordained more specifically for social environments than any other.
So what is segregation?
Despite what the media may lead you to believe, namely that such a practice is insidious and out-dated, segregation is simply the separation of men and women in certain areas Islam deems necessary. It is general principle that mainly applies to social gatherings of Muslim men and women, and reinforces the value of modesty that both genders must embody.
There are numerous authentic hadith that support this practice.
It is narrated upon the authority of Abu Usay Ansari that the Prophet said when he saw people mingling outside the mosque
!Draw back, for you must not walk in the middle of the road; keep to the sides of the road. Then women were keeping so close to the wall that their garments were rubbing against it. (Sunan Abu Dawud, 5274)
It is also narrated upon the authority of Aisha (ra) that she said:
“I used to play with my friends and whenever the Prophet (saw) entered they would leave and whenever he (saw) went out they would come back in.” (Sunan Abu Dawud Hadith 4931)
It was authentically reported from Naafi‘ from Ibn ‘Umar that the Prophet (saws) said regarding one of the mosque’s doors:
“We should leave this door exclusively for women to use.” Ibn ‘Umar never again entered through that door.” [Sunan Abu Dawud 876]
Whilst these hadith, among others, illustrate the general rule, there are numerous areas Islam has allowed communication, namely areas where the such interaction is necessary: occasions such as Hajj, work, education, dawah, meeting someone for marriage, seeking crucial advice or fulfilling a task at hand, maintaining family ties, and even when gathering to eat from one dish. As such, its clear that segregation is NOT supposed to create social awkwardness or excessiveness shyness such that men are incapable or talking to women or vice versa, but rather regulate interaction between genders so that the objective at hand is achieved.
It is also to lessen the opportunity for situations to arise that may lead to impermissible actions, such as relationships outside of marriage. Islam does not ask men and women to lower their gaze, wear hijab and maintain hayaa (modesty) in isolation, but creates an environment that does not constantly make abiding by Islam a struggle.
Such a scenario is very different to what we see today, where numerous Muslim social events have left such a principle on the sidelines.
At weddings, the rise of modest fashion means an increasing number of Muslim brides choose to wear hijab on their wedding, supposedly enabling them to have the parties mixed. On an occasion such as a wedding where everyone is dressed to impress, combined with men and women socialising or dancing together (as we have to admit, regularly happens), such an environment is unlikely to be pleasing to Allah (swt).
Of course in the West, the vast majority of social events at university are mixed, and many Muslim societies and organisations have followed suit, with charity events often featuring brothers and sisters making trips together, participating in activities or having dinners. Even some community events, which have usually naturally segregated due to they’re being held in the masjid, are increasingly less stringent on implementing and educating the community on such boundaries
This is largely a culturally influenced phenomenon. Even back home, numerous social events will not be segregated, with little thought given as to whether Islam has something to say on the issue, purely out of a lack of knowledge. Segregation is simply viewed as something the extreme uncles and aunts of the family believe, and seems restrictive and backward.
But when we look to the evidence holistically, it is clear that this is part of the wider social system of Islam, which creates an environment where men and women can interact efficiently where necessary, and otherwise not allow closer relationships to take root.
Undoubtedly, some people will find the implication that men and women are distracted by one another offensive. To those who do, I would advise a simple perusal of “Muslim Twitter” or other social media platform and assess how frequently the subject of marriage or the opposite gender is discussed by the youth. It is man’s nature to be so inclined; Islam does not subvert it, instead redirects it to the correct channel, namely marriage at an appropriate time. But it does not let such attitudes interfere with other interactions men and women take part in, and creates boundaries for us to abide by.
The youth of today face numerous challenges, from drugs, to extra-marital relationships, addictions to pornography to low self-esteem and mental health issues. Segregation will not solve all of these, but conveying this to our community is a step towards the correct understanding of men and women’s interactions with one another in the 21st century.