This blog entry comes to us from SIUE Philosophy professor Saba Fatima. Dr. Fatima has published on social and political concerns as they pertain to the Muslim identity. Here, she combines her interest in Women’s Studies with her work on religion to reflect on an important topic: the presence of women in Islam. Scholarship in history and in religious studies has long examined the role of women in Judaism, the Catholic Church, in protestant Christianity and in Islam. Dr. Fatima joins that tradition by turning a careful gaze–one both critical and respectful–toward Islam and its varied forms. Being herself a Muslim, Dr. Fatima’s reflexive gaze comes from within Islam.
I have been thinking about writing this blog for over a year. My reservation stemmed from the fact that for as long as I can remember, there has been a plethora of negative misconceptions about gender & Islam in the Western world, and I would hate to add any fuel to the fire.
Just recently, at the Republican debate in Miami on March 15, Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner, stated: “There is tremendous hate. Where large portions of a group of people, Islam, large portions want to use very, very harsh means…Let me go a step further. Women are treated horribly. You know that. You do know that. Women are treated horribly, and other things are happening that are very, very bad.”
Such rhetoric (and its tamer forms) has been historically used to justify imperialistic wars against Muslim men, women, and children and has made the American public complacent to war crimes committed by Western governments. For some Americans, part of bombing the Middle East until ‘the sand glows in the dark’ is for their own benefit. To kill indiscriminately, in order to save their women from their men…. Or so the thinking goes.
This is all to say that when minorities are critical of certain practices within their own frameworks, the criticism is almost always re-appropriated to alien contexts by the dominant political frameworks in order to justify larger systemic harm to that minority. As a Muslim American woman, such flawed logic makes me very apprehensive.
That said, I also think Muslims have a lot to contribute to discussions on gender relations, and co-opting of internal-criticism by Western worldviews has often kept us, Muslims, from challenging the status quo; it has kept us on the defensive. However, if there are to be any challenges to the status quo, they have to come from an internal critical analysis. And I am Muslim, and I am a woman, and, yes, I do live in the United States. My critical outlook on issues that are systemic in nature and that I face, are situated from my particular social location. And thus, this blog appears in my university’s women studies program blog. The placement may appear as an external gaze, but I want to own my location as that of a Muslim, similar to if I had lived in a Muslim majority culture.
So what is it that I wish to write about, that required such a prologue?
I want to put some thoughts down about how much space women are allocated in the two most holy sites for all Muslims: Masjid al-Haram in Makkah and Masjid an-Nabawi in Madinah, Saudi Arabia.
It is without dispute that visiting the Two Holy Mosques has immense religious significance to all Muslims, regardless of the Islamic school of thought to which they belong. However, the allocation of space differs between men and women in these two sites and consequently, adversely affects not only the spatial experience of women, but also their visual experience in virtue of that gendered division. I also think that disproportionate gendered allocating of space is not something that is unique to the Muslim world, and much of the analysis would apply to other Abrahamic traditions as well.
A Visual Description of the Gendered Space
Currently, less than a quarter of the space in Masjid al-Haram on the central uncovered floor—the area that gives a clear line of sight to the Kaaba—is allocated to women during the five obligatory prayers.
This small area is generally quarantined off with bookshelves, water coolers, or makeshift barriers, which inadvertently serve as a source of visual obstruction to the Kaaba for the women seated in the rows right behind the barriers. Overall, spaces that provide a view of the Kaaba are disproportionately allocated to men.
In Madinah, the situation has drastically changed within the past couple of decade. Previously, women were allowed entrance through the main doors, just as men. Now, however, women have to enter a newer extension to the mosque at least an hour before they are allowed actual entry to the central mosque. Men are still allowed access through the main entrance and have no waiting times. After waiting, women are then seated in a waiting area inside the grand mosque.
Once you reach the rawza, you cannot view the green metallic grille that encloses the grave, because it is sectioned off with high, white tent barriers (see picture above). The rush during women’s hours is enormous, and there is an ever-present urgency to leave the area because the next group of women is waiting to enter. There is pressure to secure one’s footing to get one’s prayer done before being pressed by the crowd. This behavior is not due to inconsiderateness on the women’s part, but rather is the product of the precious space lost to the constructed tent barriers and the limited time frame for the vast number of female pilgrims.
The experience of being rushed and squeezed into smaller spaces, of having little opportunity to view the sacred sites, has worked to undermine the very purpose of the female pilgrim’s long journey: to seek nearness to God.
Women & Modesty
The central concept I want to cover in this particular post is one that I believe not only exists amongst Muslims and within most major religions, but also in our American society in general. This is the idea of tying evaluation of a woman’s goodness of character to a specific embodiment of modesty.
Within the realm of everyday Muslim life, modesty is a notion that has roughly translated into behaviors one ought to refrain from: not showing off one’s wealth in any way, not flaunting one’s talents, or not being loud and obnoxious in one’s speech. Such behaviors in excess can certainly be considered vices, and when done repeatedly they can come to define a person. However, to refrain from immodest behavior is not meant to be restrictive of one’s self-expression or obstructive of one’s projects, if one refrains appropriately. However, for religious women in particular, notions of modesty are restrictive in ways that impede their religious experience.
I claim that women’s invisibility has become a marker of their modesty, and in turn their piety.
For men, piety can be loosely thought of as: complete submission to God, offering prayers; being well-versed in the Qur’an and being familiar with Islamic history and jurisprudence; and practicing good akhlaq (virtue, morality, manners), including modesty.
Although these qualities are recognized as markers of piety for women as well, the practical opportunities are often limited for women to develop their skills in history and jurisprudence and in formally learning exegesis of the Qur’an. For women, modesty and piety have become inseparably linked. The most defining characteristic of a pious woman then becomes not her knowledge of Islam or even how she practices Islam in general, but rather how she practices one particular directive of Islam, namely modesty in the physical form.
This way of approaching the virtue of modesty helps us understand how limited women’s space is erroneously seen as a form of creating and sustaining the environment for the practice of modesty. Furthermore, the practice of performing modesty through invisibility can then be seen by some as a means to acquire it as well.
Attempts to explain and/or legitimize the meager space allocation to women in Makkah and Madinah not only fall short, but also are dangerous. They make inaction feasible because if the reason women should not have unhindered access to religious sites is normative (i.e. supposedly religiously prescribed, which it is NOT), then believers feel bound to follow the restrictions and are resigned to a diminished spiritual experience.
In the case of religious experience in Madinah, women are subsumed within the logistics of performing the rituals without having the luxury of transcending into the spiritually creative world, where they would be more able to develop an affective relationship with God.
Men, however, are less restricted by the body, both in terms of encumbering conceptions of modesty and of the vastness of space and time available to them to strive for a stronger relationship with God.
This does not imply that the experience of visiting these holy sites is the sole path or even a necessary component that can enable one to have a close relationship with God, but rather that such experiences of spirituality provide a rich opportunity for believers to form such bonds with God.
Moreover, often women concentrate on individual acts of being pushed or shoved, which obscures the larger systemic position of inequality in which female pilgrims are situated. Unfortunately, more often the discontent about one’s experience is mistakenly associated with other individual women’s behavior. It is simpler to see Arab or Iranian or Turkish women as inherently this or that, rather than that all female pilgrims are being confined and regulated, and that certain behavior, not “womankind’s nature,” is a product of this confinement.
Modesty & Invisibility
As mentioned above, a large part of the discussion on modesty for women in particular has been linked to their invisibility and this particular framework is one that is found in other religious traditions as well. Within such a framework, visibility is equated with drawing unwarranted attention to one’s acts of worship. It is falsely drawn from this that allocating more space to women is one such manifestation of attention that ought not to be there.
However, such logic does not capture an important aspect of modesty within a religious context. Just as women should not draw attention to their selfless acts or acts of worship, neither should men. Within the Two Holy Mosques, among men, no physical manifestation of religious hierarchy is noticeable to the public eye. No single man stands out during prayer as ranked over another (except the imam who leads the prayer). Similarly, for women, it is not any one particular person who needs to be visually seen as an individual, which would make her stand in contradiction with religious commitment to modesty. Rather, as a community, Muslims need to see the collectivity of women in the public arena. This is to say, no one particular woman’s act of worship is for the world, but their collective gathering is a testament to their devotion as female believers.
The Way Forward
The issue of gendered space is of grave importance, because the repercussions are problematic for how Muslim women are perceived and perceive themselves. Ultimately, it affects women’s ability to lay claim to legitimate religious space.
Indeed, it is telling that one of the central rituals performed by all pilgrims follows the sunna (practice) of a pious woman. Every day, thousands of Muslims perform sa’y, a ritual that involves moving between the mountains of Safa and Marwa in Makkah. This practice is grounded in the experience of Hajra (Hagar), the second wife of the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), who searched for water between these mountains for her child, Ismail (Ishmael).
Thus, one of the central practices in Makkah is not a replication of a Prophet’s movements, but of those of a woman of great taqwa (piety), a woman whose uninhibited and unbounded bodily movements are replicated by men and women as a confirmation of their commitment to God. As believers follow in the footsteps of Hajra, moving freely, praying, there is a sense of spiritual freedom and spiritual immersion that many Muslims desperately seek, but that is available only to some.
Note: This blog is based on a forthcoming article (Spring 2016 issue) in Hypatia, titled: ‘Striving for God’s Attention: Gendered Spaces and Piety’