This summer a respected Imam in Chicago pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. The case of the Chicago Imam shattered our blithe assumptions that just because something touts itself as “Islamic” it adheres to an Islamic ethos based on mutual respect. Sexual violence is a reality in the Muslim community; the case in Chicago is not an isolated one. But how do we find real solutions that address the problem? A facile approach that hearkens to an idealistic vision just isn’t going to cut it.
Just this week, I came across a Facebook post which read that the promotion of sexual health and sexual violence awareness in the Muslim community is “advocating a completely un-Islamic, secular, liberal perspective on sex.” The solution offered: gender segregation or khalwa in Arabic.
Gender segregation, according to this “Facebook Scholar” would prevent the vast majority of the opportunity for sexual misconduct. “If our institutions abided strictly by khalwa standards […] we would all but eliminate this problem.” While he does allow for the possibility of sexual misconduct to occur even when his definition of khalwa is implemented – the case of the Chicago Imam, if nothing, forces him to admit this fact – he’s very clear in his belief that gendered spaces are the solution to all the sexual ills the Muslim community faces. While I am not a victim of sexual violence, I attribute many of the sexually dysfunctional ways of thinking in my own life to this concept of gendered spaces. I remember one time when I was working at an Islamic School, a male teacher come to the office to give me something. Instead of making eye contact and acknowledging my presence, he spoke to me with his eyes on the floor. I’m sure he did this out of respect, but respect was not what I felt. I felt dehumanized. I felt like Jezebel. There I was, a Hijab-wearing Muslim woman working in an Islamic school of all places, feeling more objectified than I ever had in my entire life.
The mosque is perhaps the only place in today’s world where men and women act as if the other sex does not exist. The idea that separate spaces prevent sexual misconduct is rendered true only if were to spend our entire lives in segregated prayer halls.
Even more problematic is the assertion that khalwa is the way things ought to be. Not only is this impossible in a pluralistic society, but it’s not even “Islamic.” In this case, as it often is, the word “Islamic” is used with a utopian frame of reference in mind. But what is this utopia? Men and women interacted with one another even in the Prophet’s time.
As Nadiah Mohajir, Executive Director of HEART Women & Girls, writes, “When Muslim leaders reduce sexual violence prevention to simple “band-aid” solutions like gender segregation, it is clear that they do not understand the complex realities of sexual violence […] They ignore that there is an entire system and culture that enables sexual violence to occur, and that the some of the root causes of sexual violence are misogyny, patriarchy, gender inequity.”
What gender segregation essentially does is make women less human, sexualizing women even more than non-segregated spaces do. It says: “Men cannot control themselves around women who are not their mothers or sisters, so let’s place them in a box where they cannot be seen and therefore rendered nonexistent. If a woman so much dares to escape this box and something happens, it’s her fault. She should have known better!” Unfortunately, in a world oiled by patriarchy, separate can never be equal.
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