Why do women have to stand behind men in prayers, and are separated by a veil or something?
It’s fundamental in Islam, to note that Islam means total submission to the will of God. Total submission to the will of God includes following His Prophet blindly, whether or not we understand the wisdome behind his teachings. In Sūrah Āli ‘Imrān 3:31, Allah subḥānahū wa ta’ālā declares that we are able to attain His Love only when we follow the Prophet (blindly), ṣallā Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam:
قُلْ إِن كُنتُمْ تُحِبُّونَ اللَّـهَ فَاتَّبِعُونِي يُحْبِبْكُمُ اللَّـهُ وَيَغْفِرْ لَكُمْ ذُنُوبَكُمْ، وَاللَّـهُ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ * قُلْ أَطِيعُوا اللَّـهَ وَالرَّسُولَ، فَإِن تَوَلَّوْا فَإِنَّ اللَّـهَ لَا يُحِبُّ الْكَافِرِينَ
“Say [O Muhammad], “If you love Allah, then, follow me, and Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. Allah is most Forgiving, and most Merciful.” Say [O Muhammad], “Obey Allah and the Messenger.” But if they turn away, then indeed, Allah does not like the disbelievers.”
The requirement to submission to the will of God is mentioned in other verses from the Qur’an as well as in some sayings of the Prophet ṣallā Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam. Allah says in Sūrah Muḥammad, 47:33:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَطِيعُوا اللَّـهَ وَأَطِيعُوا الرَّسُولَ وَلَا تُبْطِلُوا أَعْمَالَكُمْ
O Believers, obey God and obey the Messenger; and do not invalidate your deeds.”
Allah also says in Sūrah Al-Ḥashr, 59:7:
وَمَا آتَاكُمُ الرَّسُولُ فَخُذُوهُ وَمَا نَهَاكُمْ عَنْهُ فَانتَهُوا، وَاتَّقُوا اللَّـهَ، إِنَّ اللَّـهَ شَدِيدُ الْعِقَابِ
“Whatever the Messenger gives you, take it; and whatever he forbids you, abstain from it. Fear God; surely, God is severe in retribution.”
Based on the two verses above, we understand that the validity of our deeds–as Muslim, depends on the extent to which we subject them (our deeds and desires) to the teachings of Allah and His Prophet. The teachings of the Prophet don’t necessarily have to come in verbal form. In fact, most of his teachings, ṣallā Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam, came in the form of practical actions. This includes how we pray, who leads us in prayers, and who (male or female) stands in front or behind.
If this is understood, then, we Muslims have to minimize the number of our ‘whys’ pertaining to the religion. In other words, logic doesn’t work at all times.
Separation between men and women in prayers in the mosque happened in the presence, or rather with the instruction of the Prophet, ṣallā Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam. He prophet encouraged men to be in rows nearer the Imām as possible, while women are supposed to be in rows, farther from him as possible. The Prophet Muhammad, ṣallā Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam, said in a ḥadīth reported by Imām Muslim from the narration of Sayyidinā Abū Hurayrah, raḍiya Allāhu ‘anhu, that:
خَيْرُ صُفُوفِ الرِّجَالِ أَوَّلُهَا وَشَرُّهَا آخِرُهَا. وَخَيْرُ صُفُوفِ النِّسَاءِ آخِرُهَا وَشَرُّهَا أَوَّلُهَا
“The best rows of men (in terms of rewards) are the first rows (closer to the Imam), and the worst of it (less in rewards) are the last. The best rows of women are the last, and the worst are the first.”
The implication of the meaning of this ḥadīth is achieved when men and women come together to pray, in the mosque, or in an open space. It’s not applicable when a group of all-women come together to pray.
This comes to remind us of the sensitivity of the interaction between opposite genders in Islam. This is because, anytime non-Mahram meet in a gathering, they are likely attracted to one another. We admit to this when we are honest to the reality of our human nature. And since Islam doesn’t want our hearts to be attracted to the opposite genders as we pray, there’s a need for a separation. And constant mindfulness of this sensitivity sustains the purity of any Muslim society.
This separation issue is only applicable in the mosque, or in the open space, where there are non-Mahram involved. At home, a male must lead the prayers at all times. But a wife can pray alongside her husband, a mother can pray alongside her son, a sister can pray alongside her brother, and so on, provided only the two are praying. When they are praying in a group, then ladies must stand behind.
What applies to prayers, is also applicable to other gatherings, where we can organize and ensure separation of different genders.
The truth is, men are leaders, and women are followers. All Prophets were chosen from men. God is the One who decides. But this doesn’t necessarily mean, that men are better than women. The one who is led may be better than his or her leader, in many cases. Just like a son can be better than his father who raised him; a daughter can be better than her mother who nurtured her. The exceptions to this are Prophets. They are leaders who are meant to be better than their followers.
With regards to the issue of veil or barrier which is used as a symbol of separation between men and women in the mosque, it’s optional to do that. It’s not a requirement. During the time of the Prophet, although men and women, were separated, there were no barriers put in place, as signs of separation. However, if the need be, for instance, where fitnah is constantly observed, or immorality is likely to occur, then putting a veil or a barrier becomes a necessity, as a preventive measure. Should the need be for a veil to be set, we should ensure that those behind the veil, can hear the Imam clearly.
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Allah knows best.