On a recent episode of Man Up, Aymann Ismail grappled with a tradition in his faith: the segregation of men and women in Muslim prayer rooms and mosques. For years he and his wife, Mira, have entered these spaces through different entrances—and, as a result, had very different experiences. Ismail spoke to Khalid Latif, executive director and imam for the Islamic Center at New York University, about the origins of the practice. In Latif’s prayer room, men and women sit side by side, not one in front of the other. This transcript of their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Khalid Latif: If you come to our Islamic Center in New York University, we definitely have space that’s reflective of needs of both men and women in the community, and I think that’s a product of a lot of different things, inclusive of the fact that we have women who are in very prominent leadership roles.
My wife and I have gone to some spaces where the men’s entrance to the mosque is very vibrant, decorated, illuminated, and when we’ve tried to find where the women go in from, it’s literally this back alleyway with no lighting, there’s bags of garbage all around the door. We’ve been to places, when she was pregnant with one of our kids, [where] the women’s area is on a stairwell that goes up three flights, and she’ll come to me after and be like, “Nobody ever thought a pregnant woman would be in this mosque,” because she’s got one of our kids in her hand, taking the child up and down the stairs to use the restroom, let alone as a very pregnant woman having to go to the restroom quite often. And so there’s an absence of thoughtfulness that’s there. And I don’t go to those mosques anymore.
Whereas you can go also all over the world and find spaces that are just remarkable in terms of how they connect at a very deep level. I just took a group of about 65 people to Jerusalem. So the Prophet Mohammed tells people to go to Mecca, to go to his mosque in Medina, but to also go to Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. And when you go to Masjid al-Aqsa, men and women are sitting next to each other in the main part of the prayer hall. After the prayer is done, women are going all the way to the front of the mosque where the imam leads from, and they’re taking photographs and pictures from the pulpit, and there’s an interaction that’s rooted in a sense of discourse, that isn’t what you find in other places. And they’re doing it with, in my opinion, a real embrace of what Islam as a religion calls for.
Aymann Ismail: If I were to talk to my mom about this—and I have—she justifies it in a way. She’s like, “Well, you want to protect the women from the male gaze.” She comes up with all of these different reasons as to why institutions exist in that way. And I wonder, because I’ve prayed at the NYU space many times, and I think I went for one of those evening halaqas during Ramadan, and it was in one of those overflow spaces, and it was really beautiful, because this was the first time I’ve ever prayed in a congregation where there was men on the right side and women on the left side, instead of in front of each other. I wonder what it takes to produce a space like this. Is it that women have to be in leadership roles, or at some point in your journey as a Muslim, did you learn and figure this out yourself?
Latif: The challenge is not in adopting a mindset like that, but to be able to understand [that] we quite often take what we experience to then define what text says. Islam is a very inward-out religion that says you can, at the end of the day, pray the way someone prays or dress the way someone dresses, but you can’t believe something just because somebody else believes it. That has to come from within you. I would say the challenge in saying that your mother has to be wrong for you to be right just adds continuity to that perspective—that what Islam says is that she can be right and you can be right, without either one of you having to be wrong.
Ismail: It sounds like within the framework of Islam there are absolute truths like Tawhid, the belief in the oneness of God, but there are a spectrum of ranges of belief within these practices that allow for two Muslims to disagree with each other, but also still be right.
Latif: The diversity is necessary because Islam is for people in all backgrounds, right.
Ismail: So my crisis of faith came when I was about to be engaged and everything that I’d heard about what a Muslim marriage constitutes up until that point was pretty negative, right? There’s supposed to be this strong, patriarchal figure who’s overprotective, who is very careful about how his wife looks and behaves. So the first thing I did was I skipped ahead to Surat An-Nisa, which is like the chapter of women, that goes through all the legal matters of inheritance and a little bit of how men should behave around their wives and what their wives’ responsibilities are back to them. And for the most part, I was like, this is cool. This is fair. There’s a lot in there about respect and love and trust, and things to do if there’s some kind of dispute, here’s some options.
But there’s this one particular verse that tripped me up, and this is where the crisis of faith happened. It was, well, if you sense disobedience from your wife, the first thing you should do is you should try and correct it with your words, and then if that doesn’t work, leave her alone. Abstain from sexual intimacy. And the third thing, and the word they use was daraba, which I guess usually is translated into “hit,” and then that tripped me up. I was like, “I would never dream in a million years of ever being that man ever. I’ve never seen my dad do it. I’ve never seen any of the men in my community do it. It just doesn’t make sense to me why this is in the voice of God.”
And then I found that on the internet there’s sheikhs from all over the world who are saying, “Well, no. Daraba in this case means ‘leave’ or ‘leave entirely’ or ‘divorce.’ ” And there are other parts of the Quran where daraba is translated as like a veil, like in Surat Qaf, the cave—daraba is used to describe a cloak that covered the cave. And a part of me felt guilty, like maybe I was changing the religion to accommodate my own personal beliefs. I wonder what you make of that. Is it OK for Muslims who want to be feminists to come in and say, “Well, that verse doesn’t mean that, it may actually means this”?
Latif: There’s a verse that says that all of the children of Adam are given dignity and they’re elevated. I was 18 the first time I met somebody who was a survivor of domestic violence. And to think out now what we’re saying, when we say that you believe in a God that would advocate and allow for something like that—to me, in my initial journey on trying to understand this, I said, “Even if I don’t know what this means, I know that there’s no way that it means that that’s something that can be allowed. It’s just not possible.” A lot of my journey with religion was about finding a sense of ownership to it. And it took me a long time to get to a place where I realized that so much of my appeal personally for religion was around identity, and not necessarily conviction and values.
But the challenge comes in highlighting the issue, but then not seeing also where you might be a part of the remedy, in ensuring that it doesn’t take place anymore. So if some idiot, who has no idea what it means to be a man, thinks it’s OK for him to strike a woman, or a child, or anybody, that still doesn’t give me a justification for not doing what I can do to build a shelter, to ensure that there’s a fund set up to help women break out of these houses that are anything other than homes. And that deepening of understanding, of what religion really calls you to, becomes important. But I want to be able to see things and experience things with a sense of courage that says, “I don’t have to wait for somebody else.” I can utilize my platforms, my skills, my credentials, talk to people who are like-minded, and go build out things that I have a certain passion for. And you see a lot more people doing that these days.