Women and the Wall |Ruth Nasrullah

A couple nights ago I went to a planning meeting for an event at a newly-built local masjid. When I walked into the building a brother quickly directed me to the sisters’ section. I told him I was there for the meeting. He said yes, the sisters for the meeting can sit back there. I questioned how we could participate from behind the solid partition that cordons off a 6′ x 10′ area they have reserved for women in the prayer hall. The brothers would use a mike so the sisters could hear, he replied. When I questioned the feasibility of having a discussion that way, he relented and said he’d bring some chairs so the sisters could sit in the back of the main prayer hall.

As he brought in the chairs, another brother who knows me and my husband encouraged us to simply sit on the floor where the other participants would be. This we did. The alternative from my perspective would have been to leave. They had asked me to attend the meeting because of my experience coordinating similar events. To sit behind a wall would have been the same as not being there. In the end it worked out fine. Everyone observed proper adab and no fitna was created by the presence of a woman.

About 15 minutes into the meeting a brother popped his head into the prayer hall to say the sisters were complaining they couldn’t hear. A half-hearted attempt was made to use a small mike which repeatedly screeched with feedback, but as we progressed with the normal back and forth of group discussion, it became clear it was simply too cumbersome to pass the mike around – that is, until the topic of food for the planned event was addressed; then an earnest attempt was made to communicate with the sisters.

It was as though they were the invisible people who take orders at the McDonald’s drive-through. And that’s shameful.

Situations like these are unacceptable. To keep women physically barred from meetings is identical to banning them altogether. If they can’t hear, can’t engage, can only sit passively, grimacing as they strain to hear, there is no point. There were five sisters back there who were willing, enthusiastic volunteers with a variety of skills, but their input was disregarded and devalued.

I ask my Muslim brothers to imagine if they were in that situation – behind a barrier, unable to see or hear, having no means of adding to the discussion – would you tolerate it? Would you feel valued? Would you even bother to be involved?

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I acknowledge the right of sisters to choose to stay concealed within the masjid, and I’m not addressing the role of a partition during salat or during social events. However, I reject the idea that women should be forced to remain hidden for every activity that takes place inside the masjid. Walls are used to keep people out, to dehumanize, to restrict, to control. To exclude.

The masjid I attend has a partition with semi-opaque glass that offers a murky view of the proceedings in the “men’s section” and a door on either side making it easy to access one side from the other. When I first started going there, I hated the feeling of being in a cage and not part of a congregation. I hated the chattering of women and screaming of children hidden from the critical gaze of the imam. I hated the sensory deprivation of the shadowy glass and muffled voices. So with the approval and permission of the imam (Asra Nomani I’m not) I decided to go around the barrier to listen to the lecture after isha. I wasn’t sure of how it would be received. When I first began attending there, I asked several women what would happen if they went on “the other side.” I heard terrible stories, dire predictions that included my Muslim brothers urging my husband to beat me if I didn’t return to my place.

The first time I sat in the “main prayer hall” I crept through the door and sat with my back right up against the partition, well behind the men, who were seated in a semi-circle with their backs to me, listening to the sheikh. No one responded to my presence. And no one has objected since then. As I sat in the room with an unimpeded view of the imam, able to actually hear brothers’ questions and focus on the lecture without the noise of the sisters, I thought to myself, now this is how a house of worship should be; this is the community I hoped for when I became Muslim, one that goes beyond giving lip service at da’wah events to the rights of women and offers truly equal access to education and participation.

Had my actions created an uproar in the community, I would have stayed behind the partition, community cohesiveness being more important than one person’s desire for a certain atmosphere. But it would have soured the experience for me, just as staying behind the wall would have killed my desire to help with the event the new masjid is planning.

I bear in mind that even if some mosque-goers restrict my involvement in community participation, I can always follow Allah’s command to be charitable by volunteering with the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the United Way or any number of non-Muslim charitable organizations. They’ll gladly welcome my contribution without demanding that I sacrifice any aspect of my faith. And I doubt they’ll only think to include me when biryani is needed. I’m not a very good cook anyway.

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32 responses to “Women and the Wall |Ruth Nasrullah”

  1. Hassan says:

    You say “I ask my Muslim brothers to imagine if they were in that situation – behind a barrier, unable to see or hear, having no means of adding to the discussion – would you tolerate it? Would you feel valued? Would you even bother to be involved?”

    Were not the brothers other side of the barrier in that meeting? What is behind and what is front of barrier? Could not it be right or left of the barrier? I have no problem on being one side of barrier and women on other, because it would not be nice of me to go and freak sisters out. Of course hearing and understanding is important, and that is why we have virtual meetings even at work, over phone etc.

    Why women have to mix with men to be equal to them? Would a man praying in first row with no khushoo is better than woman praying in her room in her house with khushoo?

    On the other hand, is it really difficult understanding khateeb or sheikh if there is barrier? We listen to CDs, but is it equal to listening to sheikh live? Is vertical partition better than horizontal one? In a way men and women would be side by side, but partition in between them? Should we make use of curtain rather than solid thick barrier in masajid? Should we get rid of them all together, and mandate men, not to look back, till sisters leave, and urge sisters to leave immediately once the lecture is finished? Would it increase number of young men attending masajid if they knew there is no barrier between them and women? And then Allah may guide them? Is it slippery slope? Is women attending mosques necessary at all, when their prayer at home is better than prayer at masajid? Would women be comfortable having no barrier in between? Would men be more conscious of presence of women, and may feel uncomfortable? Would they loose their concentration in salah or lecture?

  2. Asiya says:

    Hassan… sisters WANT to sit on the other side of the barrier so they can hear (no, not all sisters, but some do). I think the whole point of this post is that it’s impossible to hear and concentrate during a MEETING if you’re facing a huge wall – I mean this isn’t even about prayer time, it’s about a meeting – but even during prayer (where I attend), it’s impossible really. It’s not fair and it makes us feel like we’re being cut off (where I go, there isn’t even a window, it’s a tiny room with a tiny tv that we have to crane our necks up to see, it’s almost like we’re being encouraged NOT to be there).

    If the sisters sat at the back like Ruth did, how does that distract the brothers? It shouldn’t, I mean, all the brothers are facing forward are they not? And why are the brothers getting so distracted anyway?

    What’s the point of having women at the meeting if only when they’re realized to be present is when the men are hungry. It would be easier for them to just get take-out, then they don’t even have to look or speak to the women at all, afterall, we’re only women… nothing important..

    Just a note — the sisters didn’t end up sitting in the back of the room as the first brother had suggested. All of them but me sat behind the barrier. My husband and I sat with the rest of the group holding the meeting, with a large space between me and the next man in the circle. –Ruth

  3. Hassan says:

    Sister Asiya, in my comment, I raised alternatives as questions. If you can see if anything works. Otherwise what are your suggestions?

    1. Meeting, over phone? Is it still issue, while even professional companies all around world use this mean, and there are people working from India and China on projects even. So what is wall? You say like men are not on the other side of barrier, they would have difficulty hearing as well, so why make it women rights issue? They would be facing the same huge wall in meeting

    2. For prayer, really I would encourage my wife to stay home, as my wife encourages me to go to mosque for more rewards. We can not stop women from coming to masjid, as it would go against hadith, but we can encourage them to pray at home, because its more rewarding according to hadith.

    I guess women want to be like stupid men to feel important, weird.

  4. ... says:

    The argument that brothers are on the other doesnt work as they are controlling the meeting and the Ameer is on their side. their should be a curtain between them rather then a wall so communication could be easier. (thats wht we did for our masjid and everything is running smoothly and efficiently)
    Women need to be active in the masjid rather then sitting at home with their sheikh TV.

  5. mcpagal says:

    Whenever Muslim women raise a complaint or objection about a situation like this, even as reasonably as sister Ruth has done, certain people take it upon themselves to denounce them as feminists or whatever.

    I think that the arguments were put very reasonably, even saying “had my actions created an uproar in the community, I would have stayed behind the partition, community cohesiveness being more important than one person’s desire for a certain atmosphere”. That’s the best way to go about it, rather than armed with righteous indignation and shrill nagging.

    I’ve been in meetings that were far too free, and I’ve been in others that were held with a curtain separating brothers and sisters. Both were equally unproductive for different reasons. With the curtain, even though it wasn’t a brick wall, it somehow made the brothers forget that there were sisters on the other side, and they talked in almost inaudible mutters, so that us sisters felt there was no point in us coming (except as people to be dealt out chores to).

    In terms of communication, email groups are pretty effective. But sometimes you need to have meetings in person, and theres more practical ways of keeping modest than having a wall in between.

  6. The future generation will take care of this wall problem, inshaAllah.

  7. Asiya says:

    Hassan: #1 Men don’t have a problem with the wall – they’re the ones who want it there! Fine, have a wall, but allow the women who want to participate to sit on the other side (away from the men but where they can still see and hear). The women who prefer to not sit on that side don’t have to. We have to be accomodating to both.

    #2 Perhaps you encourage your wife to stay at home but my husband encourages me to come with him and I love going with him.

    “I guess women want to be like stupid men to feel important, weird.” — I really don’t understand what you’re trying to prove with this statement. I never said I want to be like a man to feel important. Men and women are very different and women don’t need to be like men to feel equal – they should however be entitled to seeing and hearing especially if during a meeting (and especially if they want to)! I said it’s hard to hear on the other side and that I can do a lot more with my life than cook, please don’t twist my words around. Thank you.

  8. AnonyMouse says:

    Hassan, I think you’re being pretty harsh here! Sister Ruth isn’t Irshad Manji or Asra Nomani, that she’s calling for mingling of the genders and what not. She’s presenting a valid case on a valid subject – if the men want us women involved in things, then it ought to be done in the most efficient and effective manner (also, of course, 100% Islamically).

    At my old Islamic centre, men and women used to work together in organizing many of our programs and activities. We rarely had meetings, because meetings tended to be just talk with little or nothing concrete decided, so we had another system that was partly meeting, partly group emails.

    Since the men were the ones who liked to have all the meetings (does it make them feel important?), we’d let them have their meeting – and then we’d have them give us the minutes of the meeting, so that we could get right to the point without having to sit through the hours of argument. After that, if we had criticisms and/or suggestions, we’d send them out in a mass email to everyone, who would thereafter respond.

    By the end of the week, everything was pretty much decided and we’d move on with the show – for us, this was quick, efficient, and perfectly Islamic.
    (Of course, it probably helped that my parents were both the heads of men and women’s committees, respectively, and so we could get stuff passed along and agreed upon more quickly…)

    Another suggestion I have is to do it over the Internet – we’ve used PalTalk a couple times, and it worked.

  9. Asiya says:

    Mujahideen Ryder: We can’t leave everything up to the future generation, what if they see what’s happening now, think it’s the only way, and then copy? Then we’d only have a cycle and women would continue to be out of the loop.

    @ Ruth, thank you for clarifying. Sitting with your husband but away from the others sounds perfect, afterall, this isn’t prayer, it’s a meeting, I think that’s what some people don’t understand. There’s a difference between meeting and prayer, and especially a meeting in a masjid where you sit beside your husband – how much safer can you be! I agree with Mcpagal, the arguments put forth were very reasonable.

  10. Hassan says:

    Hmm strange, I did not mean to harsh or anything, in fact I am acknowledging the issue, and was asking questions, and trying to see what best can work to accomplish things. And also I might have raised some questions that people usually oppose it do (I wanted to get good answer so that they can be used every community), and I did not twist any body’s word around.

    Praying at home for women is more rewarding, I hope no one can deny this, because its hadith, simple is that. And thats why I encourage my wife to do so, but if she says she wants to go to masjid, I do not object because stopping her would also be against hadith. What was difficult in understanding that.

  11. brother says:

    “The first time I sat in the “main prayer hall” I crept through the door and sat with my back right up against the partition, well behind the men, who were seated in a semi-circle with their backs to me, listening to the sheikh. No one responded to my presence. ”

    Crept in? In a house of God? It is indeed a sorry state of affairs if the faithful have to creep around like burglars or criminals to listen to the words of the sheikh.

    tragic.

  12. Asiya says:

    Hassan: I don’t wish to argue but perhaps it was the way you use language that makes me feel like you’re trying to put me down and that’s what I take offense against. For example, “What was difficult in understanding that” makes me feel like you think I must be really dumb. I didn’t argue that praying at home is more rewarding, I simply said that I prefer to pray at the masjid and that’s what my husband and I like, do not judge me on what I do, I have my own personal reasons – but, that’s not even what this post is about, I was simply replying to your last comment so why keep going off topic?

    This is my first time commenting on this website and already I’m regretting speaking my mind, it seems as there’s no place an educated Muslim woman can do this without making to feel horrible about herself.

  13. Hassan says:

    Sister Asiya, I am commenting as you, I do not represent muslimmatters, and even if I make you feel horrible about yourself (which I do not intend to, but there could be people who say bad things), it should not stop you from speaking your mind. In fact I feel same speaking my mind in female dominated forums, and boy do they come down hard on you. (not this site)

    Verily best of speech is Allah’s, and best guidance is that of prophet Muhamad (PBUH).

    Wassalam.

  14. Asalaamu alaikum.

    Asiya, please don’t feel unwelcome! There’s room for vigorous discussion here and we’re not all equally adept at written communication; sometimes things come off as personal that aren’t necessarily. It’s the nature of blogs.

    I understand that Br. Hassan’s comment was intended to list a variety of approaches to gender segregation, not necessarily to support one or another, but to raise the issues for discussion. As his and AnonyMouse’s comments point out, there are any number of ways meetings of men and women can be held, and the one that’s most comfortable for a certain community is best. There are plenty of women who prefer to stay behind a partition, and as I noted in the post I respect that. I’m concerned when it’s forced on some women, by the culture of the masjid and/or the physical layout of the space.

    I’m also concerned by the assumption some make that men can’t be near women without falling prey to animalistic urges. Many Muslim men (at least in the US) mingle with non-Muslim women dressed in all sorts of ways every day outside the masjid. It’s virtually impossible to avoid it. If they can withstand that temptation, why would they be led astray by Muslim sisters dressed and behaving with much more modesty and in Allah’s house? In that atmosphere, I also question why they would be less inclined to lower their gaze.

    As someone who grew up in the US as a non-Muslim, all these assumptions tend to hypersexualize the atmosphere rather than minimize it. That makes me wonder if masajid need to adapt to what makes their community most comfortable even if it means taking away a barrier.

  15. Zahra Billoo says:

    Jazaks for bringing up a very important issue!

    Future generations: I agree, we cannot leave this to the next generation. Some of us reading this are the next generation and the scariest part about that – we have members who have already been indoctrinated with the ideas we tell ourselves the next generation will rid us of. It’s a vicious cycle.

    Harshness: It’s sad to see such harshness surfacing in the commentary/discussion. In my humble opinion it is such harshness that fuels the campaigns of the likes of the Asra Nomani/PMU type.

  16. UmmZaid says:

    Salaam ‘Alaikum

    But this isn’t about praying in the masjid, it is about a community that invited women to be involved in community affairs and then had a set up where it was difficult for those women to get involved: a screechy mic, unable to hear, and a wall and that this all resulted in the input of those sisters being disregarded.

    You say, “But those brothers were on the other side of the barrier,” which makes sense on the surface, but is disingenuous if you think about it. The leader of the meeting is on the men’s side; by default, the “life” of the meeting is there. You men have little to no experience being in a setting, either halaqa or meetings (and of course, prayer) where the person leading the setting is not face to face with you. He sees you, you see him, he hears you, you hear him. He interacts with you, and you with him. Meanwhile, the women are in another room or on another floor with the children, with a screechy staticy speaker or television…

    Ruth, the answer is no, the men would not tolerate it, but they tolerate it for us on our behalf. They really truly have no idea what it is like and how dispiriting it can be.

    Like Ruth, I’m no Asra Nomani. I quite like single gendered space for prayer. But when it comes to meetings and the like, you are getting into the realm of the impractical and the unfair. Meetings can be conducted in a very proper, taqwa-y manner. I’ve attended such meetings for business and community affairs (some with the majority of the women were in niqab) where men and women sat on seperate sides of the room, but everyone’s input was considered and the discussion was lively and productive.

  17. UmmZaid says:

    Salaam ‘Alaikum

    I want to add that single gendered prayer spaces can also be “unfair” if the women (and it’s always the women) are accorded the smelly, cold, wet, dark, tiny space but that I do not think that seperate spaces are inherently unfair.

    It is unfair in business b/c it’s like the woman who can’t join in the shop talk her male colleagues have at a strip joint. It gives an unfair advantage to men to have Muslima colleagues behind a wall with no access to reliable sound equipment. In community affairs it is unfair because it is often the Muslim women (esp. the mothers) who have a vested interest but who find that activities are not planned in their favor or with their needs in mind. Without an outlet for their input (and writing on a scrap of notebook paper and having a child deliver it to the menfolk is not a true outlet), then we will find that the hands who rock the Muslim babies’ cradles are not included in community building.

  18. Amad says:

    On a related tangent, I think our sisters, esp. the ones who are home-makers/students, can play a much bigger role in community activism and Masjid administrations. Usually they have the luxury of time much more so than their F/T working husbands, usually better organizational abilities, and usually less confrontational mentalities.

    I find it annoying when I see brothers pushing to the limits of their available time in trying to accomplish community projects, while their wives are sitting home, sometimes being completely futile (in terms of community contribution). And the sisters don’t have to “mix” to do a LOT of stuff, that’s usually an excuse. I say its an excuse because often times, the same sisters will “mix” in mixed home gatherings or in other social settings. If anything, the sisters could better themselves by taking courses at Islamic institutes. Sometimes, the husbands discourage this because they want their wives “completely” for themselves, which is quite unfortunate.

    My 2-cents to the husbands…. your wife CAN contribute… LET her, ENCOURAGE her!

  19. Abu Muhammad says:

    I know that the ulema of the past learnt from women. For instance Hafidh Al Mundhiri and Ibn Taiymiyyah but how did they do that? From behind a wall?

    When Hafidh or Ibn Taiymiyyah were the students and a woman was a teacher then how did they conduct the learning?

    We need a good investigation into how our scholars dealt with these issues.

    I used to be quite harsh on this issue but I think we need some Fiqh enlightenment here.

    In this era more than ever we need to involve our sisters (wives, mothers etc).

    Because if they are not with the Muslims then as sister Ruth quite pertinently put it:

    “I can always follow Allah’s command to be charitable by volunteering with the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the United Way or any number of non-Muslim charitable organizations. They’ll gladly welcome my contribution…”,

    the non-Muslims would be happy to accept any ‘help’. Especially from ‘oppressed’ Muslim women.

    IMHO the question is not that should they participate but how? We need clear guidelines, I believe.

    This topic needs to be opened up in the ummah. We need some input from people who have knowledge (hint hint).

  20. I like the setting of the alkauthar institute sisters at the back, brothers at the front and brothers are not allowed to turn around when sisters are speaking. Its quite balanced. But I know some sisters who do not wear Niqaab do feel awkward in voicing their opinions or asking questions.

  21. Nirgaz Abdullah says:

    I think people underestimate the importance of eye contact when dealing with people in a meeting. Also alot of people’s communication is non-verbal, so how can you understand what you don’t see?
    Allah tells us to lower our gaze when dealing with the opposite sex, he doesn’t say its out and an out haram to see them or deal with them. That would be absurd.
    At this time in the ummah we need to use all the great thinkers in our communities, both women and men.
    Alllah knows best.

  22. Yasir Qadhi says:

    Salaam Alaikum

    Sr. Ruth’s post raised some very crucial issues, specifically: where does one draw the line between culture and religion? One of the most relevant fields where this needs to be discussed is the role of women and their interaction with men.

    In a society such as the one we find ourselves in, to expect women to act like their predecessors did many centuries ago in far away lands is simply unrealistic. At the same time, our modern sisters cannot ignore Islamic values and completely embrace non-Islamic ones. A healthy balance needs to be drawn – one that preserves the basics of our morality and ethics, and also takes into account the cultural milieu of our times.

    I believe the inquisitive yet polite persistence displayed by Sr. Ruth is exactly the type of mentality we need.

    Yasir

  23. Alefyah says:

    It doesn’t matter whether the partition is side by side or front and back, what matters is our attitude.

    Unfortunately, not only muslim men, but men in general don’t give the same level of respect to their muslim sisters vs brothers.

    On the other hand, being a woman, I’ve personally found very few ‘wise’ women. In the masjid I see them screaming for masala space and I really feel ashamed. One has to be frank that on a majority, it’s impossibly hard to control ‘such’ women.

    I know for a man, looking at this avatar of women would make him feel that a woman has no or less ability than a man, but it takes courage to look beyond this steoreotyping. A few women may be bad, just like a few men but our attitude should always be positive.

    The day we genuinely respect each other and value each others views, thoughts and abilities – The partitions won’t matter.

    PS: A solution to mothers with children and single mulim sisters not able to concentrate due to the noise and all… In my masjid, the first floor is only for women-no kids. The second floor is for women with children. This way I sit on the first floor where I get peace and quite and can listen clearly. You could try out a similiar arrangement…

  24. brnaeem says:

    AA-

    Very nice post Sr. Ruth. In addition to the necessity of addressing the inequal treatment of the sisters at many masajids, the basic role of the masjid must also be clarified.

    For example, across the Muslim world, the masjid is solely a place of worship – people pray and leave. Occasionally a talk will take place, but not much else happens there.

    In the West, the Masjid functions as so much more and so the dynamics taking place there are going to be so very different.

    Thus the role of sisters and how brothers interact with them must reflect this change in the role of the Masjid.

    Another point worth discussing – how does living in a society where interaction with the opposite sex is the daily norm affect the gender relations taking place in the Masjid?

    I know many sisters who would have no problem dealing with non-Muslim men in their daily activities, but when they came to the masjid, they acted completely different. The same applies for the brothers.

    Why the double standard? I think Mujahideen Ryder was referring to the next generation not having this bipolar attitude.

    WA-
    Naeem

  25. […] sisters are complaining about feeling unwelcome at local Masjid events, which I know for a fact is not a new issue. Other sisters are complaining […]

  26. MsAlice says:

    As a woman, a wife and a mother, I cannot stress enough what a dire need there is for Mosques to become the center of community life. How can that happen when women are hidden behind a barrier or discouraged from attending the mosque?
    Mothers are the first and most influential teachers of their children. Countless studies have shown that a child’s future successes has a firm basis on the level of education of the mother. If we are to have a society of informed Muslim men AND women, it is incumbent that women become educated in matters of their Deen, and become aware of the rights that Islam has afforded them, and the legacy and knowledge of the generations that came before them.
    As a society, it’s just common sense that the Mosques serve that function. This entails not only the lifting of barriers, but a completely new approach to the matter. This in no way endorses going against Islamic teachings or beliefs, but rather aims at an attempt towards the restoration of a society that had the example of the Best of Men; just applied to the needs of society today.
    Think about your local mosque; what kind of arrangements are there for women? The space and condition that’s allocated to women is analogous to the position and respect that the locality (and society) holds them in.
    During the time of the Prophet (pbuh), women were held in the highest regard. The women prayed behind the men, without any barriers. They were taught by the Prophet (pbuh) without a barrier and without any sensory deprivation. If this teaches us anything, it’s how women were never treated as less than their male counterparts, but rather were treated with dignity and equality.
    If we applied this standard today, then we would have much less turbulence in our society. Our community would be more unified and our presence well established. More importantly, our women- the future mothers and teachers of the next generations of Muslims, would have a place to form bonds to their community, where the common link would be the teachings of Islam. Shouldn’t the goal be a society that is deeply rooted? Now, I ask you how can this occur when women are getting the message that they are unwelcome, or that only their culinary presence is valued? This is not only tragic but has grave consequences on how women are regarded as functioning members of society. It’s time to stop turning a blind eye to the needs and wants of a group that constitutes half-if not more-of our society; but rather to utilize and maximize on their talents and efforts in order to establish the mosque as a center of community life. This has to begin somewhere; why not start from acknowledging your spiritual equals by giving them justice in their place of worship?

    JazzakAllah Khayran Sr. Ruth for writing such a necessary article.

  27. Umm Reem says:

    Meetings are not same as prayers. Prayers need khushu’, meetings need raising and addressing issues.

    Sometimes, I want to put the brothers behind the barrier and hand them a mic. and then ask them to hold meetings to organize conferences when they can’t see the moderator neither the board nor projector!

    Sister Ruth, I am so glad you brought up this issue. I hope more brothers read this and try to learn something from this esp. those involved in community activities.

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  29. […] Nasrullah: Women and the Wall var addthis_pub = 'muslimmatters'; var addthis_language = 'en';var addthis_options = 'gmail, […]

  30. […] the comments. Ruth Nasrullah, a former MM writer expressed similar sentiments two years ago in her Women and the Wall […]

  31. HassanTakifullah says:

    -Comment removed. Personal and offensive. Future comments in the same vein will get you banned -Editor

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