New Film Explores Mosque Walls That Separate Men and Women

New America Media, News Feature, Anna Sussman Posted: Jul 27, 2006

Editor's Note: A controversial new documentary explores the division between men and women in mosques, and the differences between religious and cultural traditions. NAM contributor Anna Sussman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.

SAN FRANCISCO--Just before Friday afternoon prayer at San Francisco’s Islamic Society Mosque, men and women dressed for worship remove their shoes, duck through arched doorways and seat themselves on a plush carpet, facing East. Six months ago, this expansive sanctuary was bisected by an 8-foot wall that separated the men from the women, leaving the women behind and unable to see the imam.

The separation of men and women at the mosque reached a boiling point earlier this year when The Islamic Society, one of the city’s oldest mosques, decided to take down its barrier wall. The contentious issue is also the subject of "Me and the Mosque," a controversial film by Muslim filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz. “There is an increasing conservatism that leaves women without a voice in their community, and the wall is just a part of that,” she says.

Across the United States and in Canada, more and more mosques are erecting barrier walls that separate men from women. The walls are part of a trend towards conservatism in North American mosques, says the Canadian Nawaz. That’s what prompted her to produce her controversial film, a documentary exploring the issue of the barrier wall.

“When our mosque put up a barrier it became difficult to feel a part of the community. Women couldn’t see or hear properly. I felt it was a symbolic representation of our non-involvement in the mosque,” she says. Nawaz lives in Regina, Saskatchewan, and usually produces short comedies. But she says the barrier wall at her mosque left her feeling spiritually lonely, and she was compelled to speak out through her filmmaking.

The hour-long film features interviews with religious scholars, original animation and perspectives from women and men on all sides of the issue. Some argue that women in the mosque act as a distraction from prayer and the barrier walls serve to provide women with needed privacy during services. Others say that separating women leaves them disenfranchised and voiceless in their own community.

In San Francisco, the same issue became the focus of attention when the Islamic Society decided to dismantle their own barrier wall. “Muhammad’s message of equality between men and women has been lost,” says mosque board member Khaled Ghaleb. “Women’s rights are needed now more then ever,” he says. “That is why we chose to take down the wall here.”

Like those in the film, the worshipers at the Islamic Society are split on the issue. While some argue that they preferred the privacy the wall provided, others say they now feel more connected to the mosque and the community. Still others say that the removal of the wall was discomforting at first, but led to greater inclusion for women.

At the heart of the issue is the intersection between religious cannon and cultural traditions. “As Islam came up over the centuries it spread to other cultures, including those in which noble women did not want to be seen by unwashed masses,” explains Nawaz. Separating men and women, she says, "became ritualized in mosques, but it has nothing to do with Islam. This is about patriarchy being confused with faith, something that has happened in every major religion."

The film will be featured at this weekend’s Muslim Film Festival in Fremont, Calif. Film festival organizer Juveia Aleem says she was initially concerned that "Me and the Mosque" could underscore the common misconception that Muslim women are an oppressed class, but says it is important to show the film anyway. “Every community does not want its dirty laundry to be aired, but it raises questions we all need to face and deal with. When we have someone who raises an issue it makes all of us come together and look at it more seriously,” she says.

Still, because Islam is so heavily criticized in the West, Aleem says filmmakers highlighting Muslim issues must be doubly careful. “There are good guys and bad guys in every religion, but with Islam, there is a tendency for the general public to use one film as a representation of all the issues in the community,” she says.

Nawaz says her film serves to clear up the misconceptions of female oppression in Islam. “It clarifies the point because the wall has nothing to do with faith, only to do with patriarchy, which no faith in the world is immune from. I want to be able to separate patriarchal traditions from pure faith.”

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