Gender Segregation and Free Mixing: Where is the Equity in Reality?

My public presence is minimally disruptive, well that’s because I hardly ever go out. But when I do, I dress conservatively and go to most places that women are free to go. In Kuwait, I’m witnessing how gender segregation work in everyday life. There are prayer rooms for women in schools, in malls and stores, in parks, and restaurants. Even though I haven’t yet enjoyed the women centered amenities, I’ve heard that there are separate beaches, and tons of facilities for women like gyms and swimming pools and social clubs. There are many places where men are not allowed to go. I’ve seen gender segregation at Kuwait University and gender segregation in banks (yes a whole separate office space for women). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to equate gender segregation with Jim Crow. Our fountains are just as nice, as well as our bathrooms. We don’t sit in the back of the bus. We just don’t take the bus. I haven’t seen a sign where it says women are not allowed. I suppose that is just implied based upon context. And yes free-mixing goes on in Kuwait. But like one Kuwaiti woman told me, if you want to go to jennah don’t mix with men.

My friend says that my life reads like I’m in the middle of a participatory observatory study. But this is a real lived experience where I try to balance traditional social norms between men and women and my modern needs as a female student and traveler. In many ways I feel like I can’t win for losing. My friends says that is the only way to make sense of what I’m experiencing is to take an anthropological approach. The only thing is that the I’m not a detached observer, this is my life. I have a Muslim identity, so my so called experiment is directly tied to how I see myself. Also, the social censure has that extra bite. This is part of my social world and the social consequences can be far reaching.

My friend suggests that I write about my experiences because of its relevance to Muslims in the West. It is hard to imagine that what I have to say will really matter. In fact, it may put off a lot of people. For one, I find the rules of gender segregation are stifling. I wrote about the social isolation that I experienced during my first month in Kuwait. It is especially stifling to women who are socially punished by other women for non-conformity. I get the sense that I am a persona non grata. “Who are you?….Are you married?….Where do you live?..With who?…Ohhhhhhhhhhh…” and then awkward pause. I’ve already mentioned judgmental attitudes.

Maybe women who grow up in societies where women sit in the house all day are used to it. But for me, it makes me really unhappy (and I’m a homebody!) and I’m trying to find some way to have social outlets without seeming too desperate. Can I scream at the top of my lungs (PLEASE HANG OUT WITH ME CAUSE I’M GOING TO DIE OF BOREDOM!) I’m not saying that I do nothing all day. I spend much of my time studying. I have editing work, research, and I help out here and there. I even have a tutoring gig in the house, but we got off schedule. I have lot of busy work, I putter about in my room, and then for a few hours I may putter about the winding corridors of this flat. My social word, as well as that of my friend with children, contrasts with the buzzing social world of the male head of household.

So far, my social world is pretty spotty and the few opportunities are rather contrived. It really consists of me being a tag along or default invite to a family social function. Most of my socialization will have to be structured around classes and lectures. I go to a 2 hour Arabic class on Friday and I just started dars (lesson) on one of Ghazali’s books. So, that’s like four hours when I leave the house. But most of my lessons are in the house. For the past week a really nice Iraqi brother has offered to help me with my reading and grammar several days a week. I normally prepare for hours looking up words and translating the assigned text. We sit for an hour reading and talking about various Islamic subjects. I asked to sit in on his sessions of Arabic text incremental reading. So, for the past week, I’ve sat with two men in order to benefit from being immersed in the Arabic texts that are really for very advanced Arabic students. Since both speak English fluently, they define words I don’t know and explain difficult concepts. I hate to slow them down, but I benefit from getting a taste of texts that I might otherwise not read on my own. They are also patient as I try to articulate difficult concepts with my Arabic limitations. My friend’s husband has recruited another man to be a more formal instructor. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can have formal lessons with this teacher three days a week.

So far, it seems like I have had to transgress the boundaries of gender segregation to learn anything–especially when it comes to Arabic. I’m sitting in the highest level of Arabic offered at the Islamic Presentation Committee. There are 12 levels, this is level 6. The director said that maybe in three years she’ll see our class as graduates from the Arabic class. What that means is that the road to learning Arabic in places like IPC is real slow. I lacks the rigor that a serious student needs. And I found that outside Kuwait University (which brushed me off last minute), there are no full time Arabic programs. With all the students at the Islamic centers, no one is really invested to help fisabillah, maybe fisabalfaloos except for the gentlemen who have offered to help me get to the level of Arabic that I need to move on in my program. So, one has to ad lib. Outside of the group halaqa or dars, no women have volunteered to teach me or help me learn. Last month, I had a chance to meet a well known Syrian scholar. I asked if there were no women to study under, was it permissible to study under a man. He said yes, then hailed Syria’s female scholars. That’s nice, masha’Allah. Since I’m not in Syria, I have to make due.

I know for many Muslims sitting with a man alone is transgressive. If a man and a woman are lone than Shaitan is the third person. I even know a former graduate student who wouldn’t meet with her adviser alone because of that. This caused some problems for her non-Muslim adviser and her work wasn’t taken seriously. The lax Muslim in me just thought Muslims needed to get over it. period.But the Western me believed that we had the internal will to fight back what ever personal demons that might cause either party to objectify the other. There proggie Muslim in me believed that if the intention was pure and that if both people treated each other decently, then both parties could stay out of trouble.

When I had a private writing tutoring, I didn’ feel the same pressures as I do when I have a Muslim Arabic instructor. I’ve had Muslim instructors in the states and there was a bit of the pressure, the worry about adab. Maybe deep in my mind there was the psychological terror that I was leading someone on the path to perdition. The traditional me was convinced that a man and woman cannot be friends and something was fundamentally wrong with sitting in a busy coffee shop was somehow an illicit meeting.

As a young Muslim, I was criticized for free mixing too much. I even attended a study group full of enthusiastic Muslims. The more conservative MCA wouldn’t host a group like that, but we were able to go to SBIA and learn from each other. Unlike some of my non-free-mixing friends, I would have starved to death if I had no interaction with non-mahram men. I’ve always taken a pragmatic approach to free-mixing. I’m not saying that the results have all been good. I’ve had some fitnah past. But I am saying that I couldn’t follow the no free-mixing between the genders without dramatically altering my life–basically get married right away, having tons of babies, and rarely leaving the house. If I followed all the rules of gender segregation I wouldn’t have been able to get my education, let alone learn the language of the Qur’an. I’m aware there are many people who take issue with the path that I’ve chosen. I guess this is what I’d have to say to them: Before you condemn me for being some free-mixing loose Muslim woman, please consider what type of intellectual wasteland you’d banish me to.

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10 thoughts on “Gender Segregation and Free Mixing: Where is the Equity in Reality?

  1. Very much enjoyed your post and your candidness. Under the heading of “for what it is worth” it sounds like you have more freedom and flexibility in conservative Kuwait than a woman has in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia!

    Regards,
    American Bedu

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  2. Salaam waleykum!
    In the post you described that how you were treated in Kuwait directly affected your Muslim identity. To this I say, don’t let it. Kuwaiti society is society, not Islam. Your identity as a Muslim should not be affected by how Kuwaiti society looks at you; they’re looking at you through cultural and societal norms, not “Islamic-tinted glasses.”

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  3. I have always wondered about the gender segregation thing (outside of the mosque). My first encounter was as a freshman in college: I went to an MSA dinner and thought I had entered some sort of twilight zone: No one crossed the imaginary sex line in the middle of the room.

    It’s not the far reaching, all encompassing practice in West African Muslim communities (generally speaking) which leads me to believe that it is a cultural thing.

    But I digress you bring up some important points. It will be interesting to read how your attitudes towards mixing change. You are there for a year, it might even feel weird to interact with men so freely when you get back.

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  4. Margari,

    This is a very interesting post. As a graduate student with two men on my orals committee and male students I also have a pragmatic approach to mixing. It is hard in academic settings to not talk with male colleagues or students.

    Your post is very problematic to me because it seems that women are pretty much barred from any intellectual life. I am a homebody also (I love to cook and be at home with my husband) but I also love to be alone in my travels, to explore and to, of course, interact with people in my discipline as well as other disciplines.

    For most of my academic life I never thought about sexuality and attraction. I kept a cool distance mentally and physically from people at the universities I attended because that was pretty much an aspect of how I kept focused. I think that now as a married women I feel above the often uncomfortable dynamic of academics, power and attraction.

    But I also have a tremendous belief in self-restraint and respect. The problem I have is that something in my gut rejects the systematic exclusion of women from intellectual activity. While I do not have the experience to say that this occurs across the board, I pick up from your post that this also isolates women from each other.

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  5. Samira,
    Yes, this was not an easy post to write or admit to. I am not one to try to assert orientalist assumptions about Muslim society. I’m not trying to press a Western feminist agenda. I’m just trying to live and learn as a Muslim woman. And I find that it is the blend of culture and patriarchal interpretations of religion that narrows the scope of women’s opportunities.

    In the Western academic setting I don’t feel the psychological pressure that when I interact with my male Muslim peers here and in the West. As a Black woman in academia, I don’t feel a very strong pull of attraction. Or at least none that anyone would follow through on. There is power, but temptation? Not really.

    When I was a new Muslim, most of my friends were involved in the MSA and there were amounts of free-mixing in the student groups. But I had friends who weren’t heavily involved in organizing because they were from very conservative homes. They usually went home immediately after school. Some of these women were very intellectual.

    I used to ask my ex what did the men talk about in the segregated gatherings. We women often talked about depilatories and hair treatments. Sometimes we’d turn on music and sign and dance. The men on the other hand had rich conversations about politics and religious life. I’m not saying that we were all air heads. Many of my friends complained about the lack of intellectual stimulation.

    I think that women’s space can create opportunities for a rich intellectual life. For example, there are classes for women in Kuwait. There are places like Dar al Quran, which has a very rigorous curriculum. But you have to be pretty fluent to pass the courses. Women have their own social clubs, and I suppose diwaniyya. Plus so much of life is family centered. I don’t know any women scholars or women intellectuals. So, my intellectual discourse is limited to the occassional skype that I get from a peer back home. When you’re an outsider like me who speaks broken fushah and no Kuwaiti Arabic, it is extremely isolating. I’m feeling the weight of it. Maybe if I had someone to talk to, I might not have felt the need of whining about it in a blog.

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  6. assalamu alikeum

    When it comes to gender segregation to be honest, the most rigid practices are found in the Arab countries (the gulf & sham region. north Africa- to a lesser extent). The rest of the Muslim world does not operate in this way. the problem is Muslims equate Arab world= Muslim world= Islam, especially western Muslims who haven’t been to other parts of the world. People forget that the Muslim ummah extends far and beyond the Arabian peninsula and there are other Muslim countries which offer greater opportunities and higher level of independence for Muslim women. This is not reference to you Margari, but its just I’ve seen sometimes that Muslims end up going to the M.E, find all these problems and think: ‘this is the Muslim world and this is whats its really like’, when really its the issues that they dealt with are only relevant to the M.E and that region alone and would probably not find elsewhere. Like the issue of transport for example. Other Muslim countries, women go on the bus, if they can afford it they’ll drive and they’re not dependent on a man’s presence to do the basic things that we’re used to doing by ourselves in the west.

    May i ask, why did you choose to go Kuwait as opposed to other Muslim countries? Did you feel that you would learn Arabic best there, or did you have connections in that country which made it convenient/easier to stay?

    ma’salam

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  7. Muslim gal,
    I agree, people equate the Arab world with Islam. But many of the ideals that we have about gender relations come from the Middle EAst. Yet other parts of the Muslim world practice gender segregation and purdah, Northern Nigeria being one of them. There are polemical works produced in places like Pakistan, Europe, and America, as well as various Arab countries, telling women they should stay in the home. Yes women go out and take the bus in Egypt and they are subject to harrassment frequently and molestation occassionally. I can drive in Kuwait or take a cab. It is just dangerous and very uncomfortable for a woman to take the bus because of the large number of immmigrant male workers from South Asia and other Arab countries, who are here without spouses and no prospects for getting married. There are women who may take the bus, for example part time maids or female laborers. And because of the ways low status women are treated, I’d be subject to harrassment. I chose Kuwait because I have a friend who lives here and they offered me a place to stay. Egypt or Syria would have been my first choices, but I am unfunded at the moment.

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  8. Perhaps the stigma is there not only because some people equate the Arab culture with Islam but unfortunately some Arab Muslims also equate Islam with Arabness. 😦

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  9. Reblogged this on No More Hurting People Peace and commented:
    Dear sis, I fully support you in this ❤ I also want to thank you for writing passionately about this so honestly because too many people suffer as a result of not standing up to this.

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