My mother used to recount a story about a male acquaintance who decided to host a Tupperware party — partly because his wife had left him and taken all the Tupperware, and partly because he envisaged a life of luxury based on the sale of plastic kitchenware. Alas, not a single guest turned up. As my mother pointed out, women didn’t want a man around at a Tupperware party. No-one goes to a Tupperware party for the kitchenware — they go for the girl-talk. Who wants a man around?

So I don’t entirely disagree with Keysar Trad (writing in yesterday’s Crikey) when he says that Muslim women need their own “private space”, although I’m somewhat puzzled by his preoccupation with prayer and backsides. I can absolutely assure Keysar that the Muslim women of Australia are not — not — lobbying for a close-up view of his behind.

However, as Jamila Hussain pointed out in the study that prompted Keysar’s latest remarks, women in Australian mosques are not just allocated separate space from men — they are not allocated equal space. The women’s space is often cramped and hard to reach.

At some mosques, women have to go down a flight of stairs into a dingy basement in order to perform their obligatory wash (meanwhile, the men wash at a picturesque fountain in a sunny courtyard), and then up several flights of stairs to a balcony to pray. For those not in peak physical condition, it’s impossible.

The Egyptian scholar Leila Ahmed writes that while gender segregation has denied Muslim women many opportunities, it has also given them the space to develop their own “women’s Islam” that pays “little or no attention to the utterances and exhortations of sheikhs or any sort of official figures.” Most Muslim women will continue to seek those informal spaces where “women’s Islam” dominates — and Keysar may not like a lot of what gets said there.

But mosques are the centre for social as well as religious life, and Muslim women should not be shoved off to whatever space isn’t wanted for something else. I think men and women can both pray in the main hall without risking the kind of physical intimacy that Keysar worries will attract the wrong kind of convert. And I think women will continue to need their own “private space”, too. But we can always just start holding more Tupperware parties.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey