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Islam Women’s Space In The Mosque: Sikhs Might Have A Solution

Jun 1, 2004
A service at a Bay Area Gurdwara by Safiyya Aslan

It is important for people of all religions to understand each other, to recognize unique differences and to relate through their essential similarities. Recently, as part of a university research project, I was granted the opportunity to investigate some aspects of Sikhism. In order to understand the religion in practice, I have been hanging around a Sikh Gurdwara (house of worship) diligently taking note of all observations, from aspects of its architecture to rituals and social interaction between attendees. My experience has shown me that Sikhs may hold the answer to the current controversy over women’s equal access to space in our mosques.

There are many Sikhs where I live, and some neighborhoods could almost be mistaken for a Punjabi village instead of a metropolitan Canadian city. Although for my entire life I have coexisted with Indo-Canadian Sikhs, I have never really examined their culture or religion. I always wondered: what is it that Sikhs believe, why do the men wear big turbans and the women veils, why do they refrain from cutting their hair and from eating alcohol and pork? Is their religion something between Islam and Hinduism, or something altogether different? And so on…

Sikhism (actually pronounced as Sick-ism) is a monotheistic religion with origins in Punjab, India. It is a relatively recent religion, whose founder, Guru Nanak was born in 1469. Guru Nanak’s society consisted of Hindus and Muslims who, in his view, excluded outsiders and neglected the poor and needy. The Hindu caste system was inflexible and poorly treated the lower castes. To Guru Nanak it seemed that people in India were worshipping idols and not God. Thus, with a universal message of salvation, Guru Nanak began to travel, preach and help the poor throughout the Punjab.

He preached acceptance of all people regardless of their caste, worship of one God, breaking the worldly desires, service for the better good, and respect of every person’s rights. Guru Nanak wrote many spiritual verses that were recorded into the Sikh scriptures called the Adi Gurunth Sahib. The Gurunth also includes spiritual poetry from several Hindu mystics and Muslim Sufis. The fifth Guru Arjan Dev compiled all Sikh sacred writings completing the creation of the Gurunth. Nine more gurus followed Guru Nanak, many of them adding to the body of scriptures. The Guru is thought to embody the wisdom and compassion of God in a human. The closest parallel of a Guru in western religion can be made to that of a prophet or saint. The last Guru, Gobind Singh died in 1708. Before the last Guru died, he declared the Gurunth as “the living eternal soul of the ten Gurus.” Hence, the Gurunth continued the succession of Gurus in its corpus of writings

Essential for many Sikhs is the five outer symbols of their belonging to the Khalsa, or brotherhood. Known as the five K’s, men must wear a turban, a comb, a silver bangle, a sword and a pair of special underwear. Just as the veil for some Muslim women is an external symbol representing their faith in Islam, so too are the five K’s for orthodox Sikhs. In orthodox Sikhism, both men and women are forbidden from cutting any of their body hair because they do not believe in disrupting natural occurrences. Thus many Sikh men often have very long hair and beards. There are also many laws which purposely make them distinct from the practices of Hindus and Muslims, such as the prohibition of eating meat killed in the Muslim way, the practice of various Hindu rites, etc. They also are commanded to refrain from indulging the body to excess and using intoxicants of any form as well keeping a heart free of lust, anger and selfishness.

Upon entering the Gurdwara for the first time, I was happily surprised with what met my eyes. The Gurdwara is cut in two by an invisible barrier, one side for women and the other for men. Yet, there is no wall and no difference between the two spaces. This invisible line cuts the Gurdwara in half through its length, giving men and women the exact same amount of space and same distance to the front of the room. In the foyer, the separation is immediately apparent. Men walk to the right side where they must remove their shoes, wash their hands and put on a head covering if they don’t have one. Women walk to the left side and perform the exact same procedure as men. Then both men and women enter in the same main entrance. The entire main hall is lushly carpeted; there is not a chair in sight because everyone must sit below the Adi Gurunth Sahib (the sacred scriptures of the Sikhs). Both men and women walk down the middle of the room and bow to the Gurunth once, and take a piece of the sacred pudding that is given to everyone. They then sit down in their respective sides. The main walkway is about five feet wide and runs down the entire length of the Gurdwara. It functions as an invisible barrier between men and women. The shrine containing the Gurunth is in the exact center of the room, and the Granthi (Priest) sits and reads from the Gurunth in this location. Both women and men have the same view and distance to the Granthi.

The invisible barrier also continues downstairs which contains the langar (communal kitchen). In this room, which is open all-day and everyday, people of all faiths, races, social status and backgrounds are welcome to eat. Working in the kitchen is part Seva (service) required for Sikhs--often, it is one of the wealthy members who prepare and serve the food while the poorer ones are served. It is considered a great honor to perform service in the langar.

There are two entrances to the langar, one from the men’s side upstairs and one from the women’s side also upstairs. In the langar, women and men take their food from the same place and then sit at tables on their respective sides. Wouldn’t it be nice as well if mosques also opened their doors to all people, rich and poor, Muslim and non-Muslim, to serve food in the name of service to Allah?

And thus, the point of this description is to show how a sacred place can be divided by gender, yet allow for complete equality between them. Despite the fact that some Muslims say that if men and women were to sit side by side they would be too distracted, I don’t believe this is always the case. In the Gurdwara, men and women sat side by side, albeit with some five feet of distance between them, and I never once noticed a lustful glance or nod from one side to the other. Rather, everyone sat in their groups, either talking among each other or focusing on the front of the room where the Granthi was performing the services.

The debate among Muslims, especially in North America, over the rights to space in the mosque is a very hot and controversial issue. While some believe that women should either not be allowed in a mosque or should be relegated to a back room and others advocate no gender separation at all in communal prayer, the Sikh approach offers a good compromise.

Women and men should be given equal access to the main hall and should be able to view the imam during Friday prayers. I strongly believe that this realization can be achieved in full accordance with the Sunna and Qur’an. Even during the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him), women were not at all excluded; they prayed behind men in the same room of the first mosque in Medina and after the battle of Uhud. But many rights that the Prophet explicitly deemed important for women were taken away during the Umayyad dynasty and in subsequent “Islamic” dynasties and nation-states.

The Sikh approach toward gender participation in their houses of worship could be used as a spatial and ethical model for designing and implementing new policies in mosques. It would be wise for mosque authorities to reconsider the division of space in mosques and readjust it to satisfy the needs of modern Muslims. The objective of Muslim women’s struggle for equal access in the mosque is to gain a peaceful and welcoming space wherein to pray and worship God. It’s time to start seeing some changes being implemented in North American and other mosques throughout the world that accommodate that need and include women in all functions of religious life.

And God knows better.

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