Arab world: Segregate the sexes? Fine, until the men run out of coffee

The National

I was sitting in a majlis with a group of women when our chat on world affairs was interrupted by an urgent knock on the door; a knock that opened more than just a passage into the rest of the house. “We ran out of coffee!” I heard a male voice in distress telling the hostess as she opened the door just a tiny crack to see who it was. It was her husband, who was hosting a similar majlis in another corner of the house, with the husbands of the women here. The hostess went out to help him, leaving the door wide open to a room full of annoyed women. Several of them ran to the door to close it, because “there are men in the house”.

Being the only single person there (somehow it always turns out that way) I didn’t understand their concern; the men they were referring to were their husbands, and in any case they were wearing abayas and headscarves. Then again, I grew up in Saudi Arabia and I understand the rules of segregation.

I recall many times when I panicked because a shopkeeper was trying to make small talk; there were people around and I had been warned against being seen with any man who was not my father, husband or brother. I could be shunned by society, even arrested, for being involved in ikhtilat (interaction between the sexes).

I had an interesting conversation about this recently with a religious sheikh. He told me: “The Prophet’s wife was regularly hosting guests and would sit in on important discussions with the Prophet’s companions. I’m not sure why there is so much segregation here within a household, where wives and husbands end up doing separate things from each other, especially when it involves their friends and colleagues.”

I know I wasn’t the only one who was shocked when the Grand Mufti of Egypt and top religious figures in Saudi Arabia pointed out recently that segregation is a modern concept. “Mixing used to be part of normal life for the Ummah and its societies,” Sheikh Ahmad Al Ghamdi, head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Mecca, said in an interview with the Saudi newspaper Okaz.

“In many Muslim houses – even those of Muslims who say mixing is haram – you can find female servants working around unrelated males.” What a great point; and let us not forget the drivers who transport women around because they are not permitted to drive. In last year’s annual report by the National Society for Human Rights, the Saudi-based non-governmental organisation called for clearer definitions of terms such as ikhtilat, khulwa (seclusion) and hijab, so that they would not be open to “arbitrary interpretations”, thus depriving women of their rights. When a leading Saudi cleric criticised co-education after the opening of the mixed-sex King Abdullah University of Science and Technology last September, he was sacked. Long before any of this, some professions in even the most conservative societies got away with being able to mix without raising any eyebrows; examples are medicine and journalism (though it is not universal, as I have had the misfortune to find out).

I used to tease my friends who went into medicine that they had a better chance to “meet someone” working in a hospital than, say, a teacher who worked only with other female staff. Saudi schools remain segregated, but that is something I actually appreciated; I formed really strong bonds with my classmates and focused on school work rather than silly boy-girl crushes and all the other distractions of co-ed schools.

Aside from the religious and social aspects of interaction between sexes, it can cause insecurity in a couple’s relationship. One of my friends had a hard time accepting the introduction of women to the Saudi company where her husband works. She wasn’t allowed to mix with men, so perhaps that added even more discomfort. I told her to look at it this way: if there is more mixing, then the opposite sex becomes less interesting because it is more common.

Nothing is more wanted than a forbidden fruit. That was three years ago, and now my friend doesn’t blink an eye over this “mixing”. And guess what: now there are men in her workplace, and her husband had to adapt to that change. Now they have dinners together with these colleagues and their own partners. So change is coming, but it has to come from within, at its own pace.