The status of women in Islam, especially with regards to such issues as marriage, inheritance, veiling and seclusion has received a great deal of scholarly attention. For women, the mosque meant access to almost every aspect of public life. Debarring or limiting their access means restricting their participation in public life. Gender segregation, as seen in most mosques today, is such a limitation, for it limits women’s full access. This both hampers their participation and can even shut them out completely. Segregation can be implemented either through a screen or a wall, or by distance, as happens when placing women behind men during the congregational prayers.
Little has been written however on gender segregation in the mosque. One should perhaps mention Nimat Hafez Barazangi, who has expressed the need for women to frequent mosques in her Muslim Women’s Islamic Higher Learning as a Human Right: The Action Plan” (vide Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation, ed. Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl, Syracuse University Press, 1997, pp. 56-7). Other works include Nabia Abbott’s Women and the State in Early Islam (vide Journal of Near Eastern Studies, No. 1, 1942, pp. 114-5), which provides useful historical perspective on this issue. The write-up of Nevin Reda entitled, Women in the Mosque: Historical Perspectives on Segregation (vide, The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 2:2, Nov., 2004, pp. 77-97) is also an excellent contribution in this context. Also noteworthy is the work of two Islamic scholars, the first being al-Ghazalli, who advocated a better position for women, vide Min Huna Na’lam (Cairo, 1968, 5:185-195) and Turathuna al-Fikri fi Mizan al-Shar wa al-Aql (Cairo, 1991, 00. 158-168). He severely criticized the widespread exclusion of women from the mosque and defended their right to participate. The second one is Ahmad Shawqi al-Fanjari, who specifically addressed segregation in his al-Ikhtilat fi al-Din fi al-Tarikh fi Ilm al-Ijtima (Cairo, 1987, pp. 42-46). He promoted non-segregation and women’s participation in public life, including the mosque.
The Koran provides interesting evidence for women’s access to the mosque during the Prophet’s period. It can be gleaned from the minute examination of two kinds of verses. The first kind consists of general verses that deal more or less with all Muslims. They are in the male plural, which, in Arabic, can include women. On the other hand, the female plural does not include men. The second kind is gender-specific and specifies women, either by the female plural or by referring to a specific person. All Muslims are asked to pray in every mosque and to take their adornments: “Say: My Lord has commanded justice and that you look toward (Him) at every mosque” (7:29) and “O children of Adam! Wear your beautiful apparel (zinat) at every time and when attending the mosque” (7:31). The “children of Adam” denotes the humankind comprises of male and female. Several verses talk negatively of those who prevent believers from mosques and warn them of severe punishment (2:114, 8:34, 22:25 and 48:25).
“Who is more unjust than one who prevents (believers) from celebrating God’s name in his mosques and strives to ruin them? It is not fitting that such should enter them, except in fear. Disgrace will be theirs in this world and an exceeding torment in the world to come” (2:114) and “The mosques of God shall be visited by one who believes in God and the last day, and keeps up prayer and pays the poor-rate and fears none but God” (9:18).
The above verses indicate the right and obligation of every Muslim to participate in the mosque’s activities. The context suggests that this applies to “the believers” regardless of gender. The participation of women is not stated explicitly, it is however clearer in the gender-specific verses. When the Koran refers to man, the Arabic word usually used is insan or bashar. Both of these terms mean human being, and not the male sex, and therefore all of the injunctions in the Koran addressing man are in fact addressed to “men and women” alike. Ibn Hajr (d. 852/1449) writes that once Umm Salama was having her hair combed when she heard the sermons starting in the mosque. The Prophet began with the words, “O’people