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Separation of men and women in lecture theatres: another Islamic controversy?

While it is not demanded by Islamic tradition, many Islamic countries practice gender segregation in public places such as universities. Richard Roche

Last week, there was a troubling news item about possible gender-based “segregation” at an event held at the University of Melbourne.

The event was held by an external Muslim group, on the university campus, in which women were designated an area at the back of the lecture theatre, while men were seated at the front.

The issue now seems to have reached the federal parliament, with a number of politicians commenting on the issue.

For those fearful of Islam and Muslims, this is yet another example of out-dated Muslim views being stealthily imposed on Australian society; or even the sign of an imminent take-over of our higher education institutions by “extremist” Muslims.

Segregation and religious observance

There is no gender segregation for the activities such as classes or seminars at the university. If there were, it would be against the universities own policies.

But over the last few years, there have been some events, organised by some external Muslim groups that use university’s facilities, where the separation of men and women is practised. These are usually organised by Muslims who believe that such separation is a necessary part of their religious observance.

One question that then arises is whether this separation is one of the fundamental teachings of the religion, or if it comes from the cultural norms of the very few Muslim societies around the world that require the segregation and separation of women.

In fact, of the 57 or so Muslim majority countries around the world, only a handful practice or officially condone strict separation of men and women in public events and spaces. Where it is practised, this is based on cultural norms and values that are often demeaning to women, including the restriction of women’s roles and visibility in public life.

Unfortunately, such cultural norms and practices are often justified using dubious interpretations and selective reading of some religious texts.

Going to the source

In order to justify particular values, practices and ideas, Muslims often go to the Qur’an or the well-known practice of Muhammad.

However, there is no Qur’anic text that requires Muslims to keep men and women separate in public places. Nor does Muhammad’s own practice suggest that he required Muslims to practice such separation, let alone segregation. What is required by both is the need for Muslims — both men and women — to be modest and respectful towards one another in their behaviour.

In one telling Qur’anic text, the Qur’an asks men first to be modest and to lower their gaze, only then asking women to do the same. Modesty is not just for women.

In those few Muslim societies where practices such as gender segregation and separation are prevalent, any public mixing of men and women (even listening to a lecture on Islam by a respected Muslim scholar in a lecture theatre) would be considered an anathema and deeply offensive to the religious sensibilities of men in particular.

There are some Muslims who do not believe that men and women are equal, and who assert that women should not have a public presence. Muslims in such societies in many cases grow up with the idea that segregation and separation are normal.

Occasionally, Australian students who travel to such countries for their Islamic religious education sometimes come back with these ideas as well.

Some Muslim countries do practice forms of gender separation. Bismika Allahuma

Separating culture and religion

For most Muslims, however, such ideas have little to do with Islam and more to do with cultural factors. There are many religiously observant Muslim women who are very active in the community, and interact with men from all walks of life.

There are observant Muslim women academics, politicians, police officers, soccer players, factory workers and comedians, who see no difficulty - from an Islamic point of view - in doing what they do in mixed settings.

Neither the Qur’an nor Prophet Muhammad asked Muslims to keep women out of public view. Nor is there any religious requirement for gender separation when women and men are together in a public space, and certainly nothing to indicate that women should be relegated to the back of a facility.

More telling is that in the most sacred place on earth, the sacred mosque in Mecca, there is no separate section for men or women. Millions of Muslims visit the mosque and pray each year without the need to separate men from women.

In the second holiest place, Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina, a part of the mosque proper is reserved (divided from front to back) for women and the other for men. Outside the mosque, in the large shaded courtyard, there are no separate areas for men or women.

If separation was such an important issue, it would have been maintained in the most sacred places of Islam.

Religious freedom

In Australia, a minority of Muslims do believe in separation, and as a society that respects people’s religious freedom we should perhaps accept that it is their right to that opinion.

In their own spaces, where there are men and women who share the view that such separation is important, they should have the right to follow what they consider to be important religious requirements.

However, the event at Melbourne University was held at an institution that is publicly-funded and where participants may have come from a range of Muslim and non-Muslim backgrounds. As such, participants should be left to decide where they want to sit, regardless of their gender.

Historically, an important part of Islamic tradition has been respect for others. Muslims who live in a non-Muslim majority environment are to respect the right of others to hold different views and beliefs and to not attempt to impose their views on the majority.

Gender equality and associated values are fundamental to Australian society and those values must be respected by all, including those few Muslims who may not necessarily agree with them.

A troubling development

I find it very troubling that there are some who feel that they have a right to send women, whether Muslims or not, to the back of a lecture theatre as though this was the most natural place for women in such a setting.

For the men who organise public events to require women participants to go to the back of the facility is a breach of trust and a misuse of the facilities of the university.

It is also demeaning to women. I’m sure most Australian Muslims would also be deeply offended by such practices and would indeed question the connection between the practice and their understanding of Islam.

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