The Significance of Gender Segregation at Jalsa Salana

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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.

 

#WeStandTogether

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Sarah Waseem, London

Yesterday, 26th March, I participated in a very unusual event. Along with about ten other ladies from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community we joined a larger group of women drawn from various walks of life to stand for five minutes on Westminster Bridge to remember those who died on 22nd March. The event organised by the Women’s March was very low key –no banners, no loudspeakers, no speeches no leaflets just a simple request for women to join together to remember those who had been murdered that fateful day.

We stood hand in hand, Muslim and non-Muslim for five minutes in silence. People passed us by – some stopped to take photos of us, while others watched us. The experience was very emotional. Here we were, reminding people that terror attacks affect us too and in the words of the Holy Qur’an , ‘Whoso kills a person, except for killing another or for creating disorder in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind’ (5:33). Here we were – a visible living statement to people that we, as Muslim women condemn violence of all sorts.

As I recalled the tragic events of that day it seemed surreal to think that one person could have caused so much pain to so many, in that act of mounting the pavement with a car and deliberately crashing into the crowds. I felt overwhelmed reflecting on the deaths of innocent people, those who has sustained injuries, the violence of brutal murder in Parliament square, –and the grief of those who were now bereaved.

I am not one to relish personal attention and I felt quite vulnerable being watched by so many as we stood by the cold wall of the bridge. All I could hear was the incessant clicking away of cameras. What were they thinking of us? “What are these Muslim women doing?” It bothered me as it always does, to think some might be even be afraid of us – all these Muslim women in hijabs standing on this beautiful bridge which had been the scene of such horror earlier in the week.

I am a Londoner. I am proud of this city of ours, home to such a divergent range of cultures and faiths. Acts of terror affect me, as they do the next person, but more so because when a so called Muslim commits such a barbaric crime, he or she disgraces all of us and does a grievous injustice to the name of the founder of this faith – the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him). His kindness, compassion and mercy to all was unrivalled. Under the guidance of the teachings of Islam, he brought peace and civilisation to the unruly uncivilised nation that was pre Islamic Arabia.

As a Muslim my religion teaches me that I have responsibility to maintain peace in society –to observe law and order, and to respect those in authority. My Islam guides me to care for the young, the old, the orphans and the dispossessed, to respect others’ faith and to safeguard freedom of belief. This is not a faith of terror and extremism. ‘Moderation in all things’ was the way of the Prophet of Islam.

As I stood on the bridge, and the minutes moved on, a sense of calm come over me. Suddenly it did not matter anymore what people might be thinking. I was proud to be there – to show passers-by that, I as a Muslim cared about what had happened in my city, and that I condemned it. I hoped that with my companions, we had in some small measure, showed that terrorism could not divide us from them, that we were at one with them and that perhaps we could reassure them that Islam was not the enemy.

Testing Tolerance

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Sarah Waseem, London

By now most people know, The European Court of Justice has ruled that companies can now stipulate that employees may not wear the Islamic headscarf, but only as part of prohibitions including other religious and political symbols.  They argue that “an internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination”.

I have been debating this with a friend. She maintains that there is nothing wrong in companies stipulating a dress code – that it their right to do so. If a Muslim woman or Jewish or Sikh man does not wish to comply, then he or she should look elsewhere for work.

It is true that dress codes have been in force for years from school uniforms to official uniforms. We expect people to dress and conform to certain standards when working at every level in society.

So what is wrong with the Luxemburg decision?

The Luxembourg-based court found that a headscarf ban may also constitute “indirect discrimination” if people adhering to a particular religion or belief, such as Muslims, are put at a particular disadvantage.

But indirect discrimination is permissible if it is “objectively justified by a legitimate aim”, such as a company’s policy of neutrality, provided that the means of achieving it are appropriate and necessary.”

In many hospitals in the UK uniform measure are already in place to reduce infection. So for example, many staff are expected to wear short sleeves.  There is a logical reason for this. At airports, security concerns dictate that women covering their faces must remove their veils. Again, there is a rationale for this, that all must follow regardless of faith.

However, what does ‘a policy of neutrality’ mean?  Psychologists have been telling us for a long time that we make judgements about people within a few minutes of meeting them. From their accents, we make rash conclusions about their political views; from body shapes we may censure or applaud food choices, and (here’s the clanger!) if they are attractive we are more likely to employ them and promote them!

So, given these biases that we as humans make, from seeing someone, the rationale of not making judgments about their religious affiliations seems somewhat nonsensical.

The reality is that religion has become politicised, especially in Europe. The other reality of this ruling is, that on sheer demographics, the main target will be Muslim women, rather than interestingly, Muslim men who do not usually display their faith affiliation so obviously. Such a move will mean some Muslim women will be forced to consider where they work, and for many, this  may mean a withdrawal from sections of the labour market.

In my opinion, secularists are afraid of the power of faith – that believers do not look to solely the state for their needs but to a Higher Power. And the main source of their fear today, is Islam which is the fastest growing religion in many parts of the world.  Given the destruction wrought on the world by terrorist groups such as Daesh, their fears are understandable. However, these groups do not come out of nowhere, and as sociologists will remind us, discontent and resentment within the Muslims world has been brewing for centuries, largely aided by Western politics of interference in their affairs.

So what is the way forward? I have recently returned from the beautiful Spanish city of Cordoba, ruled by Arabs centuries ago. It was a city where faith was respected – Christians, Muslims and Jews lived cordially side by side. It was an era of a great exchange of ideas and cultures, and philosophies. It was an era of great material and scientific advancement as exemplified by the architectural beauty of the Cordoba mosque, or the ruins of the city of Medina Al Zahara.

Banning displays of faith will not lead to peace nor will they create greater integration. That comes from dialogue and discussion, not hiding one’s values, under the guise of ‘neutrality’.   The court ruling, in my opinion sets a dangerous precedent which will undermine cohesion and may lead to further divide in societies.

Empowerment of Women in the 1920s: The story of Lajna Ima’illah

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Sameen R. Chaudhary, London

It is generally acknowledged that the role of women changed during and after the World Wars. With the men away on the battle field, it was up to women to hold down the fort at home, taking on war jobs that went beyond their traditional roles. Mechanics, factory workers, farmers; jobs that before were ‘men’s jobs’ were now being done by women. Posters of strong women and propaganda challenged the stereotypes and encouraged women to work, because the nation demanded, nay, depended on it for their survival. It was perhaps intended to be a temporary break from the norm until the men returned. Once begun however, many of these women found it difficult to go back to their roles pre-war. They had come to a realisation almost by default; that they were capable and intelligent enough to do a man’s job and for them that meant that they were now equal.

There was a quiet revolution for women happening elsewhere in the world around the same time, 1922 to be precise. There were no posters, and no propaganda. And women were not being told to leave their traditional roles temporarily. These women had already been given an equal status by their faith, Islam, more than a thousand years earlier, but they did not have to act like men to prove it. This revolution recognised the uniqueness of women and the contributions they could make to further a nation, as women in their own right. This revolution occurred in India. Here, even though approximately 1.3 million men had gone off the fight the war, still women did not have to take on the role of men. Instead they were taught how to flourish in their own role as women. When a woman is allowed to achieve everything on par with men, but in her own way, without having to prove that she can act like a man- that is not just equality. It is freedom. Freedom to be a woman, and freedom to be equal in the true sense of the word.

These women I speak of, Ahmadi Muslim women were relatively financially poor but rich with enthusiasm and love for Islam and even managed to wholly finance the first mosque in London while living in 1920s India. The Second Khalifa, the spiritual head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community set up an auxiliary women’s organisation called Lajna Ima’illah in December 1922. Its aim was self-education and training of women, both in spiritual and secular terms. For example, as is still the norm in rural parts of the East, women learn crafts such as sewing and embroidery. One of the first departments created within this auxiliary was that of Industry and Handicraft, after some ladies used their skills to make artefacts and hold an exhibition where they were sold. The proceeds went to good causes. And thus this department was born with its roots in the empowerment of women by encouraging them to learn and use their skills to eradicate unemployment.

In short, it allows them to pursue means by which they can improve their skills and earn their own money-an important feature for some women when claiming their independence. But crucially, it allows them to do it in a way that does not compromise any other aspect of themselves. So often women who have multiple roles face the harsh reality of having to put one role above the other: A working mother may feel the guilt of leaving her child whilst she goes to work sometimes out of financial necessity and sometimes out of having to make a financial contribution to her household as this is what her ‘equality’ entails. The Second Khalifa of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, with his amazing foresight, recognised the importance of making women independent and eradicating unemployment as a means to empower them, rather than empowering women because they needed to fill the shoes of men. Even today in many cultures financially independent women are still feared. But he encouraged them at a time when working women were scarce amongst those that were financially supported, by giving them a higher cause: to earn their own money and spend out of it for the cause of faith thereby raising their spiritual status as well.

For over 10 years now I have watched my mother serve in the capacity of Secretary for Industry and Handicraft for Lajna Ima’illah UK; watched all kinds of women work hard, to learn new skills, to set up their own businesses sometimes in the face of adversity. I have seen women take on their roles as women and entrepreneurs with dignity and grace, and above all, creating a work life balance where their womanhood is not compromised. Skills such as cooking, sewing and handicrafts may seem old fashioned and out dated. But only a look at some of the most popular TV programmes currently suggest otherwise. It is not only these skills that can be developed, but whatever you wish. The idea is to help all those who have not pursued other career routes to work for themselves, giving them true independence and the ability to answer to no one but themselves and God. Women have organised bazaars with a footfall of over 3,000 women, providing a platform for many business women to sell and advertise their products and services. They work in temporary industrial sized kitchens in the outdoors, and feed over 10,000 women every day for three days every year at the Annual Convention for the Ahmadiyya Community. It is not pretty or dainty work, and it is certainly not for the weak. The strength, stamina and resolve of such women is remarkable. And they are not alone. A huge voluntary task force of women work long hours providing security, shelter, food, and comfort of every kind to their guests during this time.

As India celebrates its all women flights, Lajna Ima’illah has been running its own organisation, own events and own programme of education and reform for all women and girls for decades upon decades. Indeed, it is now an organisation global in scope, working in over two hundred countries around the world. Perhaps here in the UK in the future Lajna Ima’illah can reach the level of holding exhibitions such as those in Earl’s Court and the Excel Centre, mirroring the humble efforts of those first pioneers back in the 1920s.

Women And Islam

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Iffat Mirza, Raynes Park, UK

When the International Women’s March took place on 21st January 2017 with an estimated 4.8 million participants, it made some wonder what the current status of women and feminism in the modern world is. In the case of Islam many are quick to dismiss it as a backward religion which unjustly imposes the veil upon its women, allows child marriages and is generally in every way misogynistic. These assumptions could not be any further from the truth, and many Muslim women are proud to not only stand up for their rights as women, but as brave and true Muslim women.

In order to fully understand the status of women in Islam, one must closely examine the role and status of women before the advent of the Holy Prophet (peace be on him) and this beautiful religion. From the moment of their birth, girls in Arabia were subjected to the cruellest patriarchy, in which many new born girls would be buried alive in order to save the family’s reputation. Men would indulge in numerous wives, and in all areas of life, women would be treated as second class citizens. A woman would not receive a share from the wealth of her father, nor was she considered the heir of her husband’s wealth; in some countries she was the custodian of her husband’s assets, but only during his lifetime. Once a woman was married to a man, she was declared his forever, and in no circumstance could she part from him. However while she had no right to separate from her husband, no matter how afflicted she might be, her husband had the right to divorce her.[1]

Here is the true root of the misogyny and in an area today known to be Islamic one can understand why there may be a misconception of Islam being inherently a misogynistic religion. However, as with any religion, it is important to assess the justice of a religion by its own values, not the past values and customs of the countries that are predominantly of said religion.

Before we begin an analysis of women and Islam, this quote from the Holy Qur’an beautifully encapsulates the status of women to be in every way equal to that of men.

Surely, men who submit themselves to God and women who submit themselves to Him, and believing men and believing women, and obedient men and obedient women, and truthful men and truthful women, and men steadfast in their faith and steadfast women, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their chastity and women who guard their chastity and men who remember Allah much and women who remember Him – Allah has prepared for all of them forgiveness and a great reward (33:36)[2]

The Holy Prophet (peace be on him) was a great advocate of women’s rights, and indeed his wives are admirable role models for young girls even today in the 21st century. Many of the above restrictions placed on women, particularly in regards to property rights and divorce rights, are also issues that western women have faced for a very long time. It was not until the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937, less than a century ago, that the majority of British women were able to initiate a divorce. Yet Islam recognised the voice and freedom of women over 1,400 years ago and has allowed women to initiate divorce, “Khulla” on the grounds of a large majority of marital issues.[3]

Likewise, with the issue of property, the second Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Movement and the Promised Son, Hazrat Mirza Bashir-ud-din Mahmood Ahmad writes

“The Holy Prophet (peace be on him) announced that God Almighty had especially entrusted to him the task of safeguarding the rights of women. He declared in the name of God Almighty that men and women by virtue of their common humanity were equal to one another… Women could own property just like men; husbands had no rights to spend the wealth of their spouses unless they willingly gave it to them as a gift. To seize a woman’s wealth by force or to acquire it in a manner that could be adjudged that she had only consented out of deference was unacceptable…Daughters were rightful heirs of their parents’ wealth just as sons.”[4]

It was not until the Married Women’s Property Act 1882 that women were allowed to have rights over their own property in Britain.

Finally, another great status that Islam has granted mothers in particular is something that all societies should aspire to. The Holy Prophet says “Paradise lies under the feet of mothers”. The position of mothers is so high in Islam because it recognises the sacrifices mothers make and the unconditional love that they grant again and again to their children. The love of a mother is incomparable in Islam, except when Allah himself compares his love for mankind to be greater than that of a mother’s love for her child.

The second Caliph relates

“Mothers were not consulted about their children regarding education or upbringing; their rights over their children were unrecognised. In cases where husbands and wives separated, the fathers were given the custody of the children.”[5]

Islam recognises and actively encourages the participation of a mother in her child’s life and the child’s reciprocation to the extent that in another tradition, the Holy Prophet (peace be on him) is reported to have stated when asked to whom a man should be kind: “to your mother.” When asked a second time, again said: “to your mother.” He was asked a third time, again the reply was: “your mother.” Only upon being asked a fourth time did he reply: “your father.” Thus he emphasised three times how important it is for a Muslim to take care of his/her mother and to give full consideration and respect to her needs and wishes.

As all this has illustrated, Islam is not a patriarchal religion that degrades or dehumanises its women. Women are seen as irreplaceable treasures and extremely valuable members of society. They were given many rights denied to western women for centuries after. It is undeniable that patriarchy exists in many Islamic countries – but one of the most dangerous things we can do is to assume that the misogyny is a result of Islam. Like all extremists, it is a personal desire being propagated in the guise of a religion.

[1] https://www.alislam.org/library/books/Muhammad-the-liberator-of-women.pdf

[2] https://www.alislam.org/library/links/woman_quran.html

[3] https://www.alislam.org/books/pathwaytoparadise/LAJ-chp3.htm

[4] https://www.alislam.org/library/books/Muhammad-the-liberator-of-women.pdf

[5] https://www.alislam.org/library/books/Muhammad-the-liberator-of-women.pdf

Language, Integration And My Mum

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Sameea Jonnud, Aldershot, UK

From time to time in the UK, the subject of integration rears its head and it is almost certain the reporting will be accompanied by photographs of fully veiled Muslim women. It has happened this way with the Casey Review, released on 5th December when headlines talked about how many Muslims were not learning English leaving them unable to get jobs. Women in particular were singled out as being under the influence of a patriarchal society which was keeping them subdued.

This made me wonder which women Dame Louise had studied because the picture she paints does not match up with women I know about here in the UK, or indeed, in Pakistan.

The image I am left with is of the “Casey Woman” who appears to be a quiet woman with limited grasp of English who stays in the house looking after home and family. She mixes with other family members or fellow worshippers at her mosque but has no contact with anyone from the wider society. When she does venture out, she is veiled and has no interaction with anyone beyond that necessary for whatever business had led her out.

There’s just one problem with this picture; it doesn’t match up with any Muslim woman I can think of.

My mother’s generation may once have been closer to being considered a “Casey Woman” except they didn’t let a strange language in an alien country hold them back, and neither did the men in their lives hold them back.

When my mum first came to Britain my dad told her as he would be at work she would have to keep herself occupied. He showed her bus routes to reach family members and left her to it. This way my mum became familiar with travelling by herself and later on with her young children. She wouldn’t stop at just paying a visit to a cousin either and would often go out with that cousin to pass the day. This helped her to become used to speaking English with native English speakers and led to her having friends among neighbours and other parents.

She also worked and passed her driving test down the years and even now encourages girls or older women to learn to drive so they can move about with independence and don’t have to rely on and tie up male relatives. My mum’s fellow Muslim friends and female relatives were similar to her and I can only think of one who didn’t speak English – although she never let this stop her from going out and about and interacting with different people!

As I look at the next generation of girls I see a slightly different picture as they have grown up to become educated in the British system and have gone on to work in many different lines. Their daughters are following a similar path as they go out in the world. I know female doctors, scientists, teachers, architects, lawyers; I also see mothers who have decided not to go out to work and instead stay at home and look after their children.

All of these women speak fluent English, and often another European language as well as their ancestral mother tongue. They mix with non-Muslims and exchange thoughts and ideas with them. In fact they often make an effort by holding interfaith and charity fundraising events which help them to be productive members of their community. As devoted Muslims they understand this is something Islam advocates they do whether they are male or female and so they participate to make their communities better.

My mum’s generation only had the difference of not being born and educated in the UK; other than that they were no more a “Casey woman” than the next generations are. I understand that in some places there are examples of “Casey women” and hope they can escape this description because a lack of fluent English or the desire to stay at home and bring up children is in no way a barrier to their making a positive contribution to the wider society.