We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam - Customs and Culture - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
:
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result

What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

Customs and Culture

John L. Esposito

Why does Islam separate men and women?

Many, though not all, Muslim societies practice some gender segregation—the separation of men and women—to various degrees, in public spaces such as mosques, universities, and the marketplace. Thus in many mosques men and women have separate areas for prayer or are separated by a screen or curtain. Unmarried men do not mix with unmarried women outside of very specific contexts, such as family gatherings or a meeting between two potential spouses that occurs in the presence of a chaperone. Seclusion, which differs from the public segregation of the sexes, is the practice of keeping women within the home so that they have no contact with public space.

Although gender segregation and seclusion are practiced in some Muslim societies, in many Muslim countries, from Egypt and Tunisia to Malaysia and Indonesia, men and women, especially in cities and towns, increasingly study and work together. In our modern, globalizing world, where two incomes are often necessary to maintain a household, women are increasingly joining the workforce and breaking down traditional notions of gendered space.

The practice of separation has both religious and cultural origins. The Prophet's Medina did not practice sexual segregation. Although an integral part of the community, because of their special status, Muhammad's wives were told by the Quran, “O wives of the Prophet! You are not like any of the other women. If you fear God, do not be complaisant in speech so that one in whose heart is a sickness may covet you, but speak honorably. Stay with dignity in your homes and do not display your finery as the pagans of old did” (33: 32–33). The Quran later tells Muhammad's wives to place a barrier between themselves and unrelated males. Muslim men are told, “And when you ask [his wives] for anything you want, ask them from before a screen. That makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs” (33: 53).

There have been many debates about how these verses concerned with modesty and segregation should be interpreted with respect to Muslim women in general. Modern scholars have pointed out that they specifically address only the wives of the Prophet rather than all of womankind. They maintain that until the modern age jurists relied primarily on Prophetic traditions (hadith), as well as the belief that women are a source of temptation (fitnah) for men, to support women's segregation. In recent decades, more ultraconservative/fundamentalist Muslim leaders, sometimes influenced and supported by Wahhabis (see page 53, “What is Wahhabi Islam?”), have maintained that the verses addressing the wives of the Prophet apply to all Muslim women, who are supposed to emulate the behavior of Muhammad's wives.

However, opinions today vary about the necessity of separation of the sexes, from those who believe in the absolute separation of the sexes to those who think that modesty requirements can be met by dressing appropriately and acting modestly in mixed company. This holds true even in the religious realm, since women have come to play a more visible and important role in mosque and society. They not only attend services and pray with men but are also religious scholars who interpret Islam, teach Quran classes, and lead women in prayer. Most recently, women are serving as muftis in some countries, and run for and hold elected political office. Women also have governed as prime ministers or presidents, served in cabinets and parliaments, and represented various countries as diverse as Egypt, Senegal, Turkey, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia as ambassadors.

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2020. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice