Purdah

When I was in school, congregations in the surau (small prayer halls or mini mosque) would be segregated by gender: women on one side, men on the other. We would enter the same door, pray next to each other but separated by a wispy thin, almost see-through curtain. I understood that women simply felt comfortable this way; taking their hijab off to put on their telekung (prayer scarf) away from the sight of unrelated men. And so this kind of gender segregation didn’t really bother me. In fact, that’s one practical side of gender segregation that made sense to me. However, an undercurrent of discomfiting feelings about why women and men should be separated at such events, especially religious ones, soon became more difficult to ignore.

When mosque spaces became a constraint width-wise, women would to be relegated to the back, behind the men. Why to the back of the mosque? Would it be too much for men to view women bending over for rukuk and sujud I wondered?

The answer was indeed ‘yes’. The idea that the female form as a sexual distraction to heterosexual men in places where men need to be serious and focused on the act of worship disturbed me. The female form, as it were, is reduced to an enticing object whose presence needs to be concealed or simply made ‘unattractive’ to maintain spiritual order in the house of God. For someone who was growing into her adolescence rather ungracefully – all frizzy-haired and pimply-faced – being a sexual distraction was the last thing I thought I could be to these men.

I began to understand that women navigate the space around them quite differently from men.  How women present themselves in public and private spaces are tightly controlled and monitored by family, society and eventually, themselves. For men, both the private and public are their domain.

To further reinforce this sexual difference, purdah is applied to women and men (a little on this later). Purdah is a centuries-old custom that comes in two forms: the spatial segregation of the sexes using either curtains or walls, and the other by sartorial means such as the burqa. Today, purdah is maintained to various degrees; from extreme enforcement in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, to certain occasions, like weddings and funerals, in many Muslim communities.

It seemed as if spatial purdah would quietly do its own thing, existing in its comfortable, uncontroversial confines of tradition until recent criticism against it involved the British MP Jim Fitzpatrick who walked out a wedding in London because it was gender-segregated and could not sit with his wife. The furore over his actions boiled down to accusations of Fitzpatrick’s racism against ethnic minorities in Britain and their cultural practices, rather than his protest against the sexism in segregated weddings.

In a response to the media’s one-sided focus on Fitzpatrick’s ‘bad manners’, Jobeda Ali writes about the sexism in gender segregation that is ignored for the sake of preserving respect for certain customs:

No-one disagrees with respecting other cultures. But respecting an unjust practice just because some people claim it is their culture/religion is us cringing from the difficult task of social change, especially the advancing of women’s rights in resistant cultures; it is one of the hardest things to do. But we should not use culture and tradition as an excuse to not challenge injustices. We should not shy away from issues just because our own society does not practice them.

I agree with Ali’s argument in that some customs related to space must be challenged if they pose as an excuse for gender discrimination. Challenging these norms allowed women to attend university – once a male-only institution, a kind of zenana for men in privileged purdah if you like – to gain employment outside the home, and ultimately reclaim equal rights to public space.

At the root of all this is the propagation of myths about women’s bodies and sexuality that keeps women in check and insults men’s abilities to control themselves, faith-wise and sexually. And so it’s about time women and men embrace inclusion in religious gatherings in ways that everybody can understand and respect, not exclusion. Changing attitudes to gender relations would eventually change attitudes towards gender discrimination that underpins many social customs.

11 thoughts on “Purdah

  1. assalamo alaikum

    i got here via shakesville, and found your post really interesting. i often feel really frustrated by limitations that segregation can impose, but at other times actually prefer it.

    for example, at a wedding where i’m dressed up, i actually prefer to be away from the male gaze. and of course it’s not all men, but some men. but it still makes me feel uncomfortable, and i actually enjoy a women-only environment. i find i can relax more and be myself more. perhaps that’s social conditioning, but i’m not sure that it is. because i’ve grown up in the west, attended co-ed schools, work in a desegregated environment, participate in a variety of community and political organisations that are all desegregated (and with very few muslims in attendance), and it doesn’t bother me at all. but when it comes to social events, i prefer desegregation. but that’s just me!

    as regards prayer, actually if you go back in history, it was the women who requested praying at the back because they felt uncomfortable with the thought of men looking at them, rather than vice versa. again, you could argue that this is a result of socialisation. but that’s what made them comfortable. and given that congregational prayer involves close physical proximity, again i speak for myself in saying that i wouldn’t feel comfortable with males standing on either side of me, shoulder to shoulder. the side-by-side situation as you described isn’t common, but then requires a physical barrier. that irks me more than having the women stand behind with no physical barrier. what i hate most is the situation where women stand behind and there is also a physical barrier (which is what happens at our mosque). and there is the continual fight to ensure that we have sufficient women’s space in the mosque, which also angers me no end.

    but anyway, sorry for the long-winded comment. i enjoyed your post.

  2. stargazer,

    Thanks for your comment. Your comment makes me want to make sense of why women feel more comfortable in women-only spaces even more. (the following might be a little off-tangent):

    I know I can be quite uncomfortable in crowded spaces with men I don’t know, like in a subway train where everybody is packed like sardines. I suppose this is down to the fact that people are just generally protective of their bodies and distrustful of people we don’t know, especially when we live in societies where sexual violence is high and we are socialised from young to believe that danger lurks everywhere. This is especially true in many big cities like ones where I used to live, Kuala Lumpur.

    The same kind of discomfort can find itself even in the most safest of places, like the mosque for example. For a lot of people, women especially, would welcome the peace of mind of not feeling the same stress of being forced into a space with unknown men in other circumstances.

    Although one’s preference to sit however and wherever they like is definitely respected, I’d like to think that these preferences are more a reflection of what societies make of strangers and outsiders, and how men and women relate to other.

    And yes, even in a big family gathering where everyone knows each other, that same preference for single-sex environment can exist too. I feel sad that in some cases young daughters and nieces should be protected from the view of their fathers, stepfathers, uncles, brothers, and male cousins, for sexual reasons.

    I’m sorry to have taken over my reply with my own disjointed ramblings – just trying to get some thoughts out there.

    • Could it be that in the West, women HAVE to share their spaces with men, OR ELSE they’re man-hating-feminazis! Whereas in the East, men and women must not share any space but the most private spaces with each other OR ELSE they’re sexually degraded? Just thinking out loud here.

  3. Pingback: Muslimah Media Watch » Friday Links — September 4, 2009

  4. I wrote about the Fitzpatrick thing recently, and I’m glad to see your commentary here. That particular situation might be murky, but I maintain that there is nothing wrong with discomfort at sex segregation per se.

  5. If you don’t like sex segregation, don’t put yourself in those situations, no-one’s making you. Some of us like it. Apart from maybe feeling uncomfortable in front of certain men, there are also more practical reasons. Often women have their young fidgety children with them, which would be distracting for everyone if they were at the front. At the back they aren’t noticed so much.

    And when we were all kids, when going on the bus a lot of us favored the back seats right? So some of us like to enjoy and take advantage of the fact we sit at the back, as we too can fidget more!

    As for Fitzpatrick, fair enough he didn’t like it and left, there’s nothing wrong with that, but the way he went about it was definitely rude. It was a private wedding function and posed no threat to public cohesion. Had it been my big day, I would have felt quite put out, as inviting him in the first place was a kindly meant gesture.

  6. Something about Fitzpatrick’s actions just bugs the hell out of me.

    I can agree with most of what you’ve written, but there’s a part of me that says, “For crying out loud, it’s a wedding“.

    I understand the principle behind the act, but, you know, the feeling that you prioritize your own principles over someone’s happiness over their wedding day… just doesn’t sit right.

    By all means, challenge injustice — Muslim women, especially in Malaysia, are in a parlous state, partly because and stemming from practices of segregation of gender and the belief that men cannot “control” their lusts over the female form.

    But come on la! People are getting married (or, it’s a freaking funeral, or, it’s some child’s bercukur). Coming down had and saying that the practice is unjust may be well and good… but doing it so publically during someone else’s moment of happiness (or sorrow) just stinks of “look at me, look at me!” western privilege.

    • T-boy,

      I can agree with you that it’s just a wedding, and also, as a person who’s never been to a gender-segregated wedding before, I suppose I never had the opportunity to experience what the fuss is all about. I think it could just be a traditional thing that some Muslim communities do. Like some Pakistani friends of mine, who range from conservative to pretty liberal, for some reason attend gender-segregated Eid parties. Outside these parties, they’re happy to mingle freely with each other, men and women.

      I can never get it.

      Coming down had and saying that the practice is unjust may be well and good… but doing it so publically during someone else’s moment of happiness (or sorrow) just stinks of “look at me, look at me!” western privilege.

      Y’know. That is pretty interesting. Considering the fact that many white men with privilege and influence have always assumed themselves to be legit commentators of other faiths and cultures. Comments about the burqa (by Sarkozy, Jack Straw, and a dozen others) come to mind.

      • I can agree with you that it’s just a wedding, and also, as a person who’s never been to a gender-segregated wedding before, I suppose I never had the opportunity to experience what the fuss is all about.

        I dunno; while nominally in Malaysia there really is no solid gender segregation during kenduris, I’ve noticed that while the front of the house is often where the guys go to sit, and the back of the house and the kitchen are where the women tend to gather. Part of it is cultural, I suspect, but no one actually puts their foot down and says, “YOU SHALL NOT MINGLE!”

        It just feels really awkward.

        Considering the fact that many white men with privilege and influence have always assumed themselves to be legit commentators of other faiths and cultures. Comments about the burqa (by Sarkozy, Jack Straw, and a dozen others) come to mind.

        It’s not just white men. I’ve seen western feminists say the same things as well — that the burqa / niqab / hijab oppresses women. Often, the unspoken bit is that these clothes by themselves are oppressive.

        Well, no. Sumptuary laws that force women to wear these oppresses women. Whether a woman chooses to wear or not is completely within her rights as a human being.

        There are plenty of reasons why women may wear the burqa. I’ve read and heard women describe wearing these clothes as liberating, because hey, they’re not playing the “trying to look as good as possible for my man” game. Another ex-classmate I know, who is pretty liberal in her outlook, told me she wore it because… well because she was used to wearing it.

        Not everyone who wears a burqa may necessarily be oppressed, I feel. One should really ask them before making that judgment.

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