Why Segregation? What is the Role of Men and Women in Society?

Editor’s note: The following is the transcript of a speech delivered by Murabbi Aizaz Ahmad Khan Sahib at the occasion of the 45th Jalsa Salana Canada, on July 15, 2023, at the International Centre in Mississauga, Ontario.

Distinguished guests and my dear brothers and sisters, one of the best ways to describe Islam in one sentence is that it is the religion of human nature. It is a religion that recognizes the natural dispositions and inclinations of both men and women and creates the means and environment that allow for them to prosper in a social, moral and spiritual context.

The separation of Muslim men and women at religious gatherings can be perplexing, misunderstood and sometimes difficult to accept for some people in Western society. It’s usually assumed that this is done to seclude and exclude women, which is not at all the case.

This annual convention, the Jalsa Salana, that you are attending is a convention the purpose of which is to enable every sincere individual to personally experience religious benefits, to pray in congregation, to enhance their knowledge and to advance in their perception of Allah the Almighty.

In order to fulfill this objective, and to maintain the highest standards of good behaviour, dignity, self-restraint, modesty and purity, men and women are separated and provided their own spaces where they can be comfortable, more relaxed and at ease and reap the benefits of attending religious gatherings.

It is for this reason that men and women are separated in religious settings such as mosques and religious gatherings such as this—to keep the sanctity of the gathering intact and to keep all attendees focused on their higher purpose. The Caliph of our Community, His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aa) was once asked about segregation at our Community events and he said that this is a matter of,

“Separate venue, not value. There are separate halls for women and for men, but the values are the same and the separate place has nothing to do with their teaching, their skills or their potential.”

The fact that we practice segregation doesn’t mean that interaction between men and women is entirely prohibited in Islam. It is of course permissible so long as the nature of the interaction is professional and not merely for social purposes. There’s a beautiful story in the Holy Qur’an that teaches men how to conduct themselves when interacting with women. The Holy Qur’an describes the story of Prophet Moses (as) when he fled from Egypt. He came to a place where a group of men were watering their flocks and beside them, he found two women who were keeping their flocks back. He approached them and asked what the matter was. They said we can’t water our flocks until the men take away their animals, so he watered their flocks for them and then he went towards some shade and began praying. Notice how in this interaction, Prophet Moses (as) simply asked them what the matter was and then helped them and went on his way. He didn’t stop and say,

“Oh, look how beautiful the weather is!”

He didn’t try to engage them in a conversation or try to get to know them.

So, the Holy Qur’an does not prohibit men and women from interacting when necessary. That is to say, Islam takes preventive measures and wishes to separate men and women to the extent that they do not become an obsession for one another, which leads to the moral and social degradation of society and defeats the purpose for which men and women must work towards.

Indeed, the purpose of both men and women as taught in Islam is one and the same; and that is to work towards the betterment and progress of society:

“And the believers, men and women, are friends one of another. They enjoin good and forbid evil and observe Prayer and give charity and obey Allah and His Messenger. It is these on whom Allah will have mercy. Surely, Allah is Mighty, Wise.” (9:71)

And in order to achieve this objective of bettering the society, God Almighty in His Divine wisdom and in accordance with the natural and biological abilities of men and women has placed the primary responsibility of providing financially for the family on men whereas women are primarily responsible for nurturing and raising their children. This doesn’t mean that women are inferior to men.

In fact, the greatest contribution Islam made to women’s rights is recognizing the full humanity and spiritual and social equality of a woman. This was revolutionary and unheard of in the 7th century. The Holy Qur’an declared more than 1,400 years ago that men and women were created from a single soul—this discarded the notion found in previous religious scriptures that women were created for men and to be ruled by men. The Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) declared to people in his time that women are the co-equals or twin halves of men; they were no less than them. The Holy Qur’an announced that every man and woman is equal in their humanity and dignity before God:

“Verily, the most honourable among you, in the sight of Allah, are those who are the most righteous among you.” (49:14)

In light of the Holy Qur’an, women are:

  • Equally human (49:14)
  • Equally eligible for salvation (9:72, 57:13, 48:6)
  • Equally eligible for reward (4:125, 16:98, 40:41, 3:196)
  • Equally inviolable (81:9-10, 6:152, 24:5)
  • Equally recognized as a promoter of good (9:71)
  • A sign of God’s mercy (30:22, 7:190)

Everything in Islam is viewed within this spirit of equality. Men at that time used to say that,

“We used to have no regard or respect whatsoever for women until we witnessed that Allah was mentioning them in divine revelation and giving them rights and responsibilities revealed about them what He revealed, and portioned for them what He portioned.”

In fact, it can be argued that the modern woman, who enjoys all freedoms and rights granted to her today in the West was first born 1,400 years ago in the era of Islam and the revelation of the Holy Qur’an. Only within the last 100 years were women in the West allowed to vote or seek divorce or own and inherit property. Even then, such rights were not inherent; rather, they were granted to women after many years of struggle by women’s rights movements. But Islam not only acknowledged the rights of women, it established those rights and freedoms as an inherent part of their existence granted by God that no man nor law could take away.

Islam in no way confines women to their homes or makes them prisoners. Islam doesn’t suggest that women are not permitted to work or have jobs or pursue higher education—in fact, the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) once said that seeking knowledge is compulsory for every Muslim, whether man or woman.

And the truth is that in Islam and Islamic history, we find that examples of women have been given for men to emulate. A whole chapter of the Holy Qur’an, chapter 19, is named after Mary, the mother of Prophet Jesus (as); then there’s also mention of Asiya, the wife of Pharaoh, in the Holy Qur’an. The Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) said that you can learn half the faith from his wife Hazrat Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her). Hazrat Rabiah Basri (may Allah have mercy on her), was a female saint and mystic whose anecdotes and wisdom inspired generations of saints after her. It’s said that she once exited her house and she had a flaming torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. People asked her where she was going and she said,

“I’m going to extinguish the flames of Hell and set Paradise on fire.”

When they asked why, she said,

“Because people should worship God out of love for God, not for hope of reward or fear of punishment.”

Such inspiring women!

So, Islam doesn’t imprison or entrap women. In fact, Islamic law states that if a woman wishes to work and earns an income, her husband does not have any right over what she earns nor is she responsible for spending her wealth on her family, for that is the primary responsibility of men. But in saying that, Islam also doesn’t suggest that a woman’s role in the private sphere as a mother or wife is inferior to any role she could otherwise perform in public—this is a notion that Islam actually wishes to correct and reform. Islam praises the virtues of the role of women and calls upon society as a whole to honor the women who carry out their primary responsibilities. The Holy Prophet (sa) once said that

“Paradise lies under the feet of mothers.” (Sunan an-Nasa’i, Kitabul Jihad)

In conclusion, men and women are both equal when they stand before God, despite having different God-given abilities and strengths. And Islam desires to unite men and women in the pursuit of bettering the society that we live in.