Friday, October 14, 2011

On gender segregation, appearances, and bravery.

Last night I watched a French programme on Tunisia after the revolution. What really made an impression on me was a scene where almost equal numbers of women and men (1 or 2 more) sat around a table to discuss how they would invest in their country, giving up their salaries for a year to do so.

The women were so visibly Muslim with their headscarves, sat in between the other men, and spoke freely during the discussion. It was a sight I have very rarely, or quite possibly never, seen.  The street scenes in the programme look so familiar, they remind me of Morocco, but there I had never seen women sitting with men in outdoor cafes, not even in big cities like Casablanca or Rabat. (Quite possibly, I was in the wrong places).

Such a scene I’ve seen in Singapore maybe only in university, when we were not used to the idea of gender segregation yet, when we had to mix with young men and women who were not Muslim and who did not consider the need for gender segregation at all.

But in a situation where we’re talking about Islam? Never. During the time I spent volunteering at an inter-faith organization, gender mixing is the norm when there are non-Muslims around – it’s just part of normal everyday life. But when it gets to Muslim-only events, situations, or meetings, gender segregation or a majority of men becomes the norm. Men gather to overcome religions, but not gender issues within.

For example, this organization had a big oval table used for conferences. Not many women dared to sit at the table itself, preferring to form a second row on chairs, lining the walls of the room. Yet, I think visibility matters a lot. Seeing men and women sitting together or dressed in a variety of ways (at a religious meeting especially) can makes a difference in helping people feel that they also are welcome, and their input too.

Norms of gender segregation are not the same everywhere in the world. Okay, it sounds obvious but you’ll be surprised, many people hold a certain (Saudi Arabian) idea of gender segregation, not considering that this is a social construct. Different norms can also be a source of conflict and injustice – for example, Indonesian domestic workers shaking hands or talking to men or havingboyfriends in Saudi Arabia is cause enough for arrest.


Much of this phenomenon is self-regulated – most of the time, no one is forcing men and women to separate themselves, or dress in a certain way for an ‘Islamic’ event. Foucault says power is usually exercised bottom-up instead of top-down; people internalize social norms and regulate their behavior, which perpetuates these norms further.

This is an exercise in self-reflexivity – in a room full of Muslims, and especially when there are only women with headscarves around, I (with my formerly headscarved head) sometimes hesitate to say something related to Islam. Whether it’s to protest some ruling that I think is absurd, or to correct someone. I self-regulate, I self-censor, even though I am aware that I should not judge based on appearances  – exactly the way I would like others to treat me. So then I wonder, why do I still self-regulate?

Can we imagine a meeting of Muslim men and women of equal numbers, who work together in one mosque, sitting together around one table, speaking freely and consulting on a matter like programmes for the next Ramadan, for single unmarried mothers with children, and on reserving clean and accessible prayer spaces for women in the mosque, and especially during Friday or Eid prayers? Can the content of these discussions be so significant that each person’s appearance or identity doesn’t matter?

How different is gender-based segregation from race-based segregation, anyway? Or class-based segregation? Especially in situations where the gender, race or class is not relevant. Is it all apartheid with different justifications?

Can we imagine a time where it doesn't matter whether someone wears a headscarf or wears her hair free, is bearded or clean-shaven, wears prayer caps or baseball caps, prays or not, fasts or not – as long as someone calls himself or herself Muslim, we accord them the special respect that they are due as fellow believers, if not the same dignity we accord all other human beings? That we don’t need people to prove their Muslim-ness, we don’t search for theirMuslim-ness before doing so.

And then I think, could I be brave enough to be one of those people?

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