By Navida Sayed, Hounslow, UK
Every year thousands of Ahmadi Muslims flock to Jalsa Salana UK (the Annual Convention) in Alton, Hampshire. The aim of the event for the members of the community is to attain spiritual advancement, unite in universal brotherhood and promote peace. Many guests attend for whom a salient feature of the convention is the segregation of the sexes. The separation of Muslim men and women at religious gatherings can be perplexing, misunderstood and sometimes difficult to accept especially in Western society.
Segregation of the sexes exists in all spheres of society including schools, hospitals, prisons, members clubs, workplaces and gyms. Yet when Muslims uphold the same principle it is seen as a medieval sign of the oppression and subjugation of women. Unfortunately some misconceptions are due to atrocities and injustices against women inflicted by bigoted extremists. To make matters worse, the negative biased and sensationalised stories about women in Islam plague the media. Taken together this creates a public narrative that there is a need to rescue and liberate Muslim women from the clutches of the faith of Islam.
In any workforce employees happily comply with company regulations in order to keep safe and protect their rights. Disregard or disobedience could result in disciplinary action or even termination of employment. Likewise practicing Muslims are expected to understand and obey the teachings of Islam, which is the faith of their choice. The commandments of Islam for both men and women to observe Purdah (veiling as a mindset) are for the betterment of society. This does not necessitate that teachings of Islam are out-dated and in need of reform.
For Ahmadi Muslims the separation of men and women during prayers and religious events has always been the norm and stems from Islamic teachings relating to Purdah. Many individuals may be completely unaware that males were the first to be instructed in the Qur’an to lower their gaze. Being aware of men’s weak innate nature, God also commanded women to cover themselves as a preventative measure. In Islam a woman is not regarded as a sex object and is free from exploitation and harassment.
Those who strongly oppose gender segregation on the grounds that both genders are being deprived of each other’s company are not aware Islam upholds the belief that intimate relationships should be confined to the private domain of marriage only. The separation of the sexes in mosques and religious gatherings is a preventive measure both for men and women to maintain the highest standards of good behaviour, dignity, self-restraint, modesty and purity.
The separate spaces are for their own comfort and ease where they do not have to cover up and where they can relax and reap the benefits of attending religious gatherings. Religious settings and gatherings such as the Jalsa Salana are not places of social hangout rather the prime focus is to reap spiritual benefits through prayers and listening to the speeches.
Sitting separately from men at community events or wearing the Hijab, does not restrict a Muslim woman’s role. She is encouraged to seek education and is not restricted to pursue a professional career. Ahmadi Muslim women excelling in highest standards of academic achievement can be witnessed in the award ceremony on the second day of Jalsa. Muslim women have all the rights that Muslim men enjoy, and in some ways, have certain privileges, which men do not enjoy. In a recent survey amongst 323,500 American adults, 56% of working mothers with children under the age of 18 said they would prefer to stay at home and take care of their house and family. A Muslim woman has the right and choice to stay at home and raise the children and for her husband to shoulder the financial responsibility for family. Another privilege is that a Muslim man has absolutely no right to demand anything from his wife’s income, property or wealth and Islam gives her the right to spend it as she wishes.
At the Jalsa Salana we welcome all interested in discovering the true teachings of Islam including the treatment and rights of women. Islam has granted women a position of dignity and honour and was the first religion to formally grant women a status never known before. The moral, spiritual and economic equality of men and women as propagated by Islam is unquestionable.
At Jalsa special guided tours are offered and female guests have the option of visiting the women’s area too. Leading some of the tours over the years, I found the reactions of the female guests were always the same. Whilst walking across there would be an air of silence, suspense and a few questions amongst the groups. Upon entering the ladies arena the guests were astounded, some politely commenting that they expected to see only be a few women behind a curtain in a small space. Of course the prime question always arises, why do we sit separately?
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community made life easier for its members especially for women to enable them to have recognition through their own women’s organisation known as the Lajna Ima’illah. Ahmadi Muslim women around the world have their own mosque areas, offices and at Jalsa Salana an entire ladies arena to themselves.
The women’s organisation works alongside their male counterparts under the direct guidance of the worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (may Allah be his helper and guide).
If anyone still considers that Ahmadi Muslim women are regarded inferior to men because of the segregation all they need to ask is who does the cooking? The answer people maybe expect is the women as there certainly would be no shortage of female participants at the Jalsa. In reality meals cooked over the course of the three day event for thousands of guests attending the Jalsa are all prepared by men, including peeling hundreds of bags of onions and potatoes, cooking and washing the gigantic pots and pans in very hot working conditions. Men could say that this is unfair on them, but they never complain and take on the task voluntarily and happily to serve the guests of Jalsa Salana. Likewise the men do all the cleaning and all of the heavy work.
At Jalsa the women also have the privilege of being addressed by the spiritual Head of the community Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahamd directly in their own gathering on the second day of the convention when he also awards female students for their academic achievements. The Lajna Ima’illah (women) have office bearers and teams of women in all departments such as health & safety, security, registration, administration, press & media, audio visual, camera crew, Voice of Islam radio, hospitality, Humanity First, discipline, first aid, exhibitions and much more. All the women are volunteers and at Jalsa Salana the volunteers comprise academics, professionals and housewives working in unison with the men all united as one. As Ahmadi Muslim women, we have absolutely no problem with the segregation, rather it is a source of great freedom and success for us. Furthermore segregation applies equally to men as it does to women, so any question of inferiority cannot apply for both are bound by this rule in equal measure.
We invite all female guests attending the convention to visit us on the ladies side and witness for themselves women leading women. Within the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, we are well aware and educated about our rights in Islam. The men in the community are also reminded about their womenfolk’s rights. One of the beautiful aspects of Islamic teaching is that by defining the role of women in society, and then by giving dignity to that role, it makes women feel fulfilled, empowered, respected and liberated. As Ahmadi Muslim women who experience this at first hand we can vouch for the wisdom and benefits of this teaching, as the independence we gain from segregation is a source of great strength.