Our problem, as I said before and will always say, is that we tend to go to extremes when dealing with social and intellectual issues. We are rarely guided to the 'middle' which represent one of the general and most prominent features of Islamic theology and commandments.
This is strikingly clear in this issue as well as all other issues related to contemporary Muslim women.
Two opposite types of people have been unfair to women:
1. The Westernized type who want to impose Western traditions, which include decadence and lack of values - especially religious, and deviation from normal nature. In addition to staying away from the rightly guided path, that Allah has sent prophets and holy books to show to the people and call them to abide by.
They want the Muslim woman to follow the habits of Western women, inch by inch and foot by foot as was visualized in the hadith of the prophet: "Even if she enters the lizard's hole she follows her even it was twisted and narrow and smelled bad." Nevertheless, if the Western woman enters it, the Muslim woman follows suit. Or in other word, a new kind of amicability that some tried to propagate that was known as "Amicability of the lizard's hole".
Those people are not aware of what the Western woman complains of today and the negative repercussions that the 'open' mixing of sexes has brought upon her, upon men, the family and the whole society. They shut their ears to the screams of dissatisfaction that filled the horizons of the Western world, as well as the screams of the scientists and literary men, and the fears of intellectuals and the reformists of the whole civilization that was affected as a result of canceling all restrictions on the mixing of sexes.
Those people also forget that every nation has its personality that is formed by its beliefs and visualized it to the universe, life, existence and the God of existence, as well as its values, heritage and customs. It is not right for a society to copy another one.
2. The second half are those who force other traditions on women but they are the traditions of the East not the West. Those traditions are given a religious color. Those people who made those claims made them from their sides; based on something that they understood, or a view that they initiated or preferred because it suits their view on women and their disrespect for her, her religion, her brains or her behavior.
Nevertheless, it is no more than the viewpoint of a human who can make mistakes due to the effect of time or place on him, the effect of his sheikhs and his school. He is opposed by other views that basing their opinions on what is Sahiih in the Glorious Quran, and in the wisdom of the Noble prophet and the stands of the companions.
I would like to state that the word 'mixing' in the area of the relationship between men and women is a new word that has entered into our Muslim dictionary. It was never known to our long heritage for the past centuries, and was not known except in this period. Perhaps it was a translation of a 'foreign' word that carries this meaning. Its implication is not a comfortable one to the senses of a Muslim person.
It would have been better to use the words meeting, gathering, or women's participation with men or something of the sort.
In any case, Islam does not issue a general ruling on this matter. Islam looks at it in the light of the objectives behind it or the benefits gained as well as possible harms and in what form it takes place and the conditions that should be met, etc.
The best guidance is that of Muhammad (PBUH) and that of the rightly guided caliphs and companions.
The onlooker would find that women were not imprisoned nor kept apart as has happened in the ages of the backwardness of Muslims.
Women used to attend the Jamaa (congregational) prayers and the Friday prayers in the Mosque of the Prophet. The prophet encouraged them to take their places in the rows behind the men. The further they could stand the better, as he feared that something would show of men's bodies, for most of them did not know shorts/trousers. There was no separation between men and women of cement, wood, cloth or anything else.
At the beginning men and women used the same door. When this caused crowding on entry and exit the prophet said: "If you could keep this door for women." They made that door for women and it became known up until today as the door of women.
Women at the time of the prophet attended the Jumaah prayers and listened to the speech. One of them memorized Surat 'Qaaf' from the prophet's own voice as a result of hearing him say it from the Friday minbar.
Women also attended the prayers of the two feasts and participated in this big Islamic festival that included the young and old, men and women, out in the open, praising God out loud.
Muslim narrated: (Om Attiyah said: "We were all ordered to go out on the two feasts: the women who never leave home and the virgins.)
In a story she said: "The prophet PBUH ordered us to go out in the Fetr and Adha - those who attained puberty, those who had their periods, those who were confined to their quarters. As for women who have their period, they do not pray but attend the event and the preaching. I said: "O Prophet! One of us might not have a jilbaab (long dress)". He said: "Let her sister give her a dress of her own."
This is a Sunnah that Muslims have killed in some or all countries except what some youth did lately during the Islamic awakening. They brought to life what died years ago such as spending the last 10 days of Ramadan in seclusion and the Sunnah of having women attend the prayers of the feast.
Women attended lessons of knowledge, given by the prophet, with men. They asked about issues related to their religion that many women today would be embarrassed to ask. Aisha praised the Ansaari women saying that the shyness did not stop them from understanding their religion. They asked about the major ritual impurity, sexual maturity, washing, the period, sexual maturity as well as other such things.
It was not enough for women to attend. They wanted the prophet to themselves and asked him to make one day for them where men would not outnumber them. So the prophet dedicated a day for them and gave them wisdom and commandments.
Women's actions went further and they participated in the war effort to provide services for the army and the fighters in the ways that they are capable of and are good at: nursing, first aid, caring for the injured and wounded, in addition to other services such as cooking, giving water and preparing what the fighters would need of civil matters.
Om Atiyya said: "I took part with the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) in seven battles. I would stay behind in the camp of men, cook their food, treat the wounded and nurse the sick." - narrated by Muslim.
Muslim narrated on the authority of Anas: ("Aisha and Om Salim had their sleeves up one day and they were carrying water flasks on their backs that they then gave people to drink. Then, they went back and filled them".) The presence of Aisha here, and she was under twenty, answers the claims of those who said that participating in campaigns and battles was confined to elderly women. That is not true. What would elderly women be able to do in situations that need physical and psychological ability combined?
Imaam Ahmed narrated: "Six women from the believers were with the army that was putting Khaybar under siege. They were handling arrows, giving water, taking care of the wounded, weaved and worked for the sake of God." The prophet gave them a share of the booty.
It is true that the women of some of the companions participated in military campaigns and Islamic battles by carrying weapons, when they had the chance. It is well known what Om Umara; the relative by marriage of Ben Ka3b did on the day of Uhud. The prophet said about her: "Her status is better than that of such and such a person."
Muslim narrated on the authority of Anas, her son: (Om Selim also carried a dagger on Hunayn that she used to stab the stomach of anyone who came near her. Her husband Talhah saw her and said: O prophet! This is Om Selim with a dagger. So the prophet asked her: "What is this dagger?" She said: I took it so that if any of the disbelievers came near me I would stab his stomach. The prophet laughed.") Narrated by Muslim, number 1809.
Al-Bukhari in his Sahiih has a chapter on the campaigns of women and their fighting.
The ambition of Muslim women at the time of the prophet and his companions - did not stop at participating in campaigns in nearby battles that were close to Arab land such as Khobayr and Honayn. It went further than that into aspiring to take to the sea and participating in opening far away lands to convey the message of Islam.
In the Sahiih of Al-Bukhari and Muslim, on the authority of Anas: (The prophet was at Om Haram Ben MalHan, the aunt of Anas, one day. Then he woke up laughingly so she asked him: O prophet what is making you laugh? He said: "People from my nation asked me to go on military campaigns for the sake of Allah, riding the sea, kings on beds or like kings on beds." So she said: O prophet! Pray that I be one of them. He prayed for her. Om Haram rode the sea during the time of Othman with her husband Ibaadah Ben Al-Samit to Cyprus. She fell off her camel. She died and was buried there according to the narration of the people of sirah and history.)
In the social life women participated in calling for good things, ordering that good deeds be done and forbidding bad deeds as Allah Almighty said: (The Believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey Allah and His Messenger. On them will Allah pour His Mercy: for Allah is Exalted in power, Wise.) (At-Tawbah:71)
Another famous incident related to the response that a woman gave to Omar in a Mosque in the case of Al-Mahwar. Omar changed his opinion and accepted hers openly saying: "The woman was right and Omar was wrong.". Ibn Kathir mentioned it in the Tafsiir of Surat An-Nisaa2 and said that its isnaad was jayyid.
Omar had appointed, during his caliphate, Ash-Shafaa2 Ben Abdullah Al-Adawaiyyah as 'mu7tasibah' or controller of prices and supervisor of trade honesty over the market. The one who looks deeply in the Quran and how it talks about women in the different ages and in the life of the messengers and the prophet does not feel this iron curtain that people have put between men and women.
We find that Moses - while he was at the peak of his youth and strength - talking to the two girls, the daughters of the old Sheikh. He asked them questions and they answered without being guilty or embarrassed. He helped them gallantly. One of them goes to him later, sent by her father, to invite him to go with her to her father. Then one of them suggests to her father that he make use of him because of what she saw in him of strength and honesty.
Let us read what came in Surat Al-Qasaas (verses 23-26): (And when he arrived at the watering (place) in Madyan, he found there a group of men watering (their flocks), and besides them he found two women who were keeping back (their flocks). He said: "What is the matter with you?" They said: "We cannot water (out flocks) until the shepherds take back (their flocks): and our father is a very old man."
So he watered (their flocks) for them; then he turned back to the shade, and said: "O my Lord! truly am I in (desperate) need of any good that Thou dost send me!"
Afterwards one of the (damsels) came (back) to him, walking bashfully. She said: "My father invites thee that he may reward thee for having watered (our flocks) for us." So when he came to him and narrated the story, he said: "Fear thou not: (well) hast thou escaped from unjust people."
Said one of the (damsels): "O my (dear) father! engage him on wages: truly the best of men for thee to employ is the (man) who is strong and trusty.")
In Mariam's case, we find that Zakariya used to enter her 'miHraab' and ask her about the 'rizk' he found there. (Al-Imraaan: 37)
(Right graciously did her Lord accept her: He made her grow in purity and beauty; to the care of Zakariya was she assigned. Every time that he entered (her) chamber to see her, he found her supplied with sustenance. He said: "O Mary! Whence (comes) this to you?" She said: "From Allah: for Allah provides sustenance to whom He pleases, without measure.")
In the story of Queen of Saba', we find her gathering her people to consult them on the issue of Suleiman (An-Naml 32-34)
(She said: "Ye chiefs! advise me in (this) my affair: no affair have I decided except in your presence."They said: "We are endued with strength, and given to vehement war: but the command is with thee; so consider what thou wilt command."
She said: "Kings, when they enter a country, despoil it, and make the noblest of its people its meanest; thus do they behave.)
It cannot be said: this is the legislation of those before us so we do not need it. The Quran did not mention this to us except to let the rightly guided ones gain guidance from and remember its wisdom.
It is therefore true to say: the legislation before us as mentioned in the Quran and the Sunnah is a legislation for us as long as it had not been copied to our legislation. God Almighty said to his prophet: (Al-An3aam: 90)
(Those were the (prophets) who received Allah's guidance: copy the guidance they received; say: "No reward for this do I ask of you: this is no less than a Message for the nations.")
Keeping a woman at home, between its four walls and not letting her out was considered in the Quran - in one of its sates of legislation before the famous verse of punishment on adultery - as a severe punishment to Muslim women who committed adultery. Allah Almighty said in Surat An-Nisaa': 15)
(If any of your women are guilty of lewdness, take the evidence of four (reliable) witnesses from amongst you against them; and if they testify, confine them to houses until death do claim them, or Allah ordain for them some (other) way.)
Later, Allah allowed women to go their way when the legislation on adultery was revealed which is the whipping that was mentioned in the Quran for those who are not sheltered (married) and the stoning to those who are sheltered.
So how can the logic of keeping respectable and honorable Muslim woman at home be in line with the logic of the Quran and Islam?! It is as if we will punish her an everlasting punishment when she has not committed a sin.
The meeting of men and women is not 'haraam' but is acceptable or required if the objective was participation in a noble cause, related to useful knowledge or good deeds, or a beneficial project or a necessary 'jihaad', or otherwise of the activities that need combining the efforts of the two sexes and cooperation between them in the planning, direction and execution.
This does not mean that the barriers between them should melt and the legislative barriers related to meetings between two parties are forgotten. People should not claim that they are pure angels that nobody should fear for or from. They want to transfer the Western society to us. The duty is to participate in good deeds and cooperate in what is charitable and pious within the framework that was drawn by Islam, which includes:
1. Keeping the eyes lowered politely between the two parties. They should not look at each other's private parts of the body 'al-3awrah', nor look with passion, nor look for longer than necessary. (Surat An-Nuur 1)
(Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: and Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; ....)
2. Women should stick to respectable Islamic attire that covers the body except for the face and palms, which is not transparent. (Surat An-Nuur 31).
(... and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss)
A number of companions of the prophet had stated that the ornaments mentioned in the verse refers to the face and the palms.
Allah Almighty explained why women should dress discreetly: "Surat Al-A7zaab:59".
(O Prophet! tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.)
In other words this attire differentiates between the serious decent woman from the playful careless one. Hence, nobody would harm the decent woman because her attire and her behavior will force all those who see her to treat her with respect.
3. Abiding by Muslim behavior, especially when women deal with men.
a) In talking: women should not talk seductively (Al-A7zaab 32) (O Consorts of the Prophet! ye are not like any of the (other) women: if ye do fear (Allah), be not too complaisant of speech, lest one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire: but speak ye a speech (that is) just.
b) In walking: (An-Nuur: 31) God Almighty said: (and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments.) Muslim women should be as described here: (Al-Qasas: 25) (Afterwards one of the (damsels) came (back) to him, walking bashfully. She said: "My father invites thee that he may reward thee for having watered (our flocks) for us." So when he came to him and narrated the story, he said: "Fear thou not: (well) hast thou escaped from unjust people.")
c) In movement: she should not bend and twist like the ones mentioned in the Noble Hadith as ((the bending benders)). She should not like the women of the jahilliya period who were over adorned.
d) Women have to avoid all what can be seductive of perfume or make up that ought to be used at home, not on the streets nor when meeting with men.
e) There should be caution in having a man sit alone with a woman without a 'mi7rim'. The A7aadiith Ash-Shariifah forbade this and said: "The third is the devil". Fire and firewood should not come together. Women, should not be alone with a man, especially with male relatives of the husband. A 7adiith went: ("Do not enter on a woman". They said: "God's messenger. What about the relatives of the husband?" He said: "The relatives of the husband are death.") That is, the cause of destruction because a man may sit for long and there is danger in this.
f) The meeting should be limited to what the needs dictate and what the joint work necessitates without the exaggeration that could lead the woman to ignore her duties or make her susceptible to people's evil talk or keeps her from the holy role of taking care of the house and bringing up generations.
Dr. Yousuf Al-Qaradawi's Website