Long considered anti-feminist, female-only spaces are now being seen as a way to support women’s equality. What does #MeToo mean for gender segregation in religion?

By Maria Iqbal


Pine trees flank a large brown building in the west end of Thornhill. Patterned brick leads to the front entrance, which stands below three arched windows. Black block letters above the middle window read, Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation. A few years ago, Dahlia Horlick would never have thought she’d prefer this synagogue—also known as BAYT, meaning “house”—to the one she was raised in just south in North York. BAYT is a Modern Orthodox synagogue which separates men and women during the prayer service.

A student at Guelph University, Horlick was raised in the Reconstructionist tradition of Judaism, in an environment where separating men and women was considered anti-feminist. That changed when she went on a trip to Israel in high school and learned more about Orthodox practice. For a month that summer, Horlick toured sites across the holy land. She joined in prayers, visited different synagogues and went to the Western Wall for the first time.

The Western Wall is the last remaining piece of the Temple of Jerusalem, an ancient site of Jewish worship, after it was destroyed by the Romans 2,000 years ago. Today, it’s widely considered one of the holiest sites in Judaism.

When Horlick entered through the security gates in the Old City of Jerusalem, she saw people praying close to the wall. Parents were weeping with their sick children and praying for their health. Even tourists were deep in contemplation, their camera phones tucked away. As Horlick approached closer, the men and women in her group separated and entered through different gateways. “I expected that because it’s a really holy site,” Horlick says. “I felt like it made sense.”

But for many Jews, the wall is also a site of intense struggle over gender equality. The site is set up like an Orthodox synagogue with different spaces for men and women. Because the site is sacred to all Jews, there have been movements by more liberal streams to create a co-ed space for worship there.

In Orthodox synagogues across the world, men and women are separated in one of two ways: women either sit upstairs in an ezrat nashim or a mechitza divides the men and women. Members of the Orthodox community say the point is to allow people to pray without distraction.

The mechitza was introduced into Judaism during what’s known as the Second Temple era, between 530 BCE and 70 CE. As a result, it’s not mentioned in the Torah, the main Jewish scripture, but instead in the Talmud, the Jewish law. “The rabbis noted at some point in that generation that allowing men and women to enter the temple of Jerusalem without segregation was leading to undesired frivolity. So, they decided that they would create a separation,” says Daniel Korobkin, rabbi at BAYT.

Women sitting in a balcony can see the men below, but even when they’re side-by-side, the mechitza is mostly to stop men from looking at women and not vice versa. “Men get distracted more than women do when praying,” Korobkin says. “Really, it’s more for the benefit of the men than it is for the women.”

The Western Wall in Jerusalem is a holy site for Jewish pilgrims across the world.

While common in Muslim communities, gender-based segregation is practised in different ways by many faiths, including some Christian, Hindu, and Jewish communities. In many cases, the separation is meant to promote modesty: helping worshipers avoid sexual arousal in a house of worship. But separate seating doesn’t come without controversy. In some cases, segregation is another name for relegating women to cramped and dismal rooms in dark basements or symbolic of an attitude that treats women as afterthoughts at best, and distractions at worst.

Beyond the physical arrangement of the room, there are well-defined roles for men and women in Orthodox Judaism. Men lead prayers and congregations while women aren’t required to pray as frequently as men, and generally don’t read from the Torah. Meanwhile, other Jewish streams, like Reform and Conservative, even have women rabbis.

Although Horlick was raised as a member of Darchei Noam, a Reconstructionist synagogue, her trip to Israel marked a transition towards Orthodox practice. “I just got more used to seeing men and women separate in that month,” she says. “When I got back home and went to Darchei Noam, I almost felt weird to be sitting in mixed seating.” She says members would be chatting instead of focusing on the service: “Just for where I was at spiritually, I didn’t appreciate it as much as I used to.”

Horlick began eating only kosher-style food. She also started keeping Sabbath with friends she made on her trip. (She couldn’t in her own synagogue because the food wasn’t always kosher and music would be played, which isn’t allowed by the Orthodox on Sabbath.) Then, last summer, she decided to join her friends for a service at BAYT. There, men and women were separated by a mechitza. But now, Horlick understood it. “When you’re praying, it’s supposed to really just be between you and God. You’re not supposed to be concentrating on other things,” she says. After the sermon ended, the men and women sat together for a meal.

Many Jews disagree with what the barrier is supposed to represent. “The idea of the mechitza, the separation is anathema to me for many reasons,” says Dawn Bernstein, a retired cantor for Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue in Thornhill, whose role was to lead prayer through religious music. Though Bernstein identifies as Reform, she’s attended segregated services when performing for Orthodox synagogues. “I don’t like sitting separate from my husband and his two sons,” she says. “I don’t like the idea that they would see their mother funneled up there on the other side of the room.”

She says while Orthodox communities believe women don’t have to participate in certain practices, like praying in the synagogue, she believes women should be encouraged to take part if they choose. “I don’t quite understand how a young Orthodox woman can be a fully equal partner in her work life and not a fully equal partner in her religious life,” she says. “I can’t reconcile the two sides of that, so I live in a world that doesn’t have to.”

But Korobkin describes separate seating as a form of “self-regulation,” saying, “Men and women have to help each other on their spiritual journeys. The women feel that there’s virtue in it and the men feel that there’s virtue in it.”

At Darchei Noam, where men and women sit together, a woman named Tina Grimberg is the rabbi. While Grimberg declined to be interviewed for this story, a statement emailed by her assistant said Grimberg “does not feel that segregating men and women conflicts with human rights, but obviously it is a bigger conversation.” Another female rabbi, Elyse Goldstein of the Reform synagogue, City Shul, also did not wish to be interviewed for this story, noting, among other things, “since my congregation does not separate genders I’d prefer not to speak about those who do.”

Horlick, who’s not a member of any specific synagogue while she studies in Guelph, found meaning in separate seating. “In the Orthodox perspective, men and women just have different roles,” she says. If women don’t read from the Torah, they take leadership in other areas, like joining many of the boards at the synagogues and inviting speakers. She says, “When it comes to separation in the Orthodox synagogue, the women are above the men. It’s supposed to be metaphorical saying they’re holier, they’re above you.”

In recent years, many have called out gender segregation—in and out of religion—as anti-feminist, a practice that treats women as inferior and restricts them from full participation in the faith. But others defend separate spaces as a way for women to foster their personal and professional growth away from patriarchal structures. Where the #MeToo movement has propelled forward discussion on women’s rights, it’s also carved out a place for women to re-claim the meanings of separate spaces.

The movement for women’s-only spaces in the West goes back to first wave feminism, which fought for women’s right to vote and seek education. By 1830, “ladies’ ordinaries” were popping up as dining spots in North America for female travelers who weren’t accompanied by a man. During this time, girls’-only schools were emerging in Canada, like the Bishop Strachan School which opened in 1867.

Two decades later, the University of Toronto opened its doors to women. In 1903, some of the first female university graduates came together to found the University Women’s Club of Toronto, after the University Club for Ladies in England, to support women in academia.

Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” pushed the movement even further after it was published in 1929. Her words, “Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days” were widely seen as a call to give women writers spaces to do their work.

Feminists in the late 1970s and 1980s used Woolf’s phrase to advocate for separate spaces for women. They looked for places where women could “debate gender issues and express themselves away from sexual politics and the male gaze,” says Professor Kim Knott, who researches space theory at Lancaster University, in an email.

Though the momentum for female-only spaces has since died down, there has been a recent resurgence around the globe. In 2006, Rio de Janeiro introduced women-only subway cars on their trains, something which has long existed in Japan, and more recently in Mexico City, Malaysia and Germany. Italy opened a beach exclusively for women the following year. In Singapore, a female co-working space opened in 2014, tellingly called Woolf Works. Though the space is now closed, others have emerged in the United States and Canada. Then, in 2017, Berlin created a “safe zone” for women at its New Year’s Eve celebrations.

While recent women’s spaces have been met with both applause and condemnation, feminists haven’t been so friendly when it comes to separate spaces in other contexts. Referring to the feminists of the late 20th century who pushed for more women’s spaces, Knott says, “Some of those same feminists have been only too ready to see women’s segregation in cultural contexts as a problem of oppression.” In recent years, there’ve been controversies centered on mosques and Muslim prayers where women sit separately from men. In 2011, a middle school in the Toronto District School Board made headlines over the prayer accommodations for Muslim students which allowed male students to stand in front of the females. Five years later, Justin Trudeau was criticized for visiting a mosque which was also separated by gender, a seeming affront to his commitment to women’s rights.

The question about whether gender segregation is inherently sexist doesn’t come with a single answer, says University of Ottawa professor Lori Beaman, a Canada Research Chair in religious diversity and social change. “I would prefer that we step back at first and ask some bigger questions about women’s equality and space more generally and the regulation of space.” Beaman says gender segregation in religious spaces should be discussed alongside all different kinds of segregated spaces “and the ways in which space segregation can be both emancipatory for women as well as oppressive.”


It’s an early March afternoon in a small neighbourhood in Vaughan, just north of Canada’s Wonderland. At the centre is a bright white edifice, with a silver-topped minaret reaching up to the sky. Bait-ul Islam: The House of Peace. Women pack the gym in the cube-shaped building adjacent to the mosque, grabbing their seats as the proceedings begin. Cupcakes dot each of the round tables in the audience, topped with a swirl of aqua icing, the same colour as the plastic tablecloths. At the front is a stage with four women on a panel. Each speaker has a placard in front of her that reads the name of her faith: Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam.

A camerawoman stands in the middle of the room, peering through the lens and focusing on the women on stage. Their faces are projected on the TV screens across the room. Another team adjusts the audio equipment for the microphones.

A woman in a hijab steps up to the podium and introduces the interfaith peace conference. This year’s theme is “My Faith and Canadian Values,” she says, a nod to past anger over the hijab and burqa in Canada. It’s no accident that there were hundreds of women sitting in the gym four days before International Women’s Day: the symposium is held every year, but the theme this time raised a particular irony—it’s a women-only event.

Growing up, I’ve been to many events at Bait-ul Islam, the national headquarters of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at, my religious community. Men and women always sit separately. The Jama’at has an auxiliary, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association, which holds events for women, like the peace conference, all year long.

“When people think of the word ‘segregation,’ they think of excluding someone from something. The way that the Jama’at operates is, it’s seen as more of a separation and not an exclusion,” says Maliha Shahid, a spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at in Canada. The Women’s Association is entirely run by women, from the national president to the local executives in each branch. “We are empowered to live up to our capabilities and become the leaders that we’re allowed to be,” Shahid adds.

A collage of four women in different spaces

“A lot is made of the fact that Muslim men and women choose not to shake hands with people of the opposite sex, or prefer to sit and worship separately,” said Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the fifth worldwide leader of the Jama’at known as a caliph, at a women’s gathering in England in February 2018. “Yet, as time goes by, even those who criticize such beliefs are coming to realise the wisdom that underpins our values.

“In recent months, there has been a huge scandal in the American film industry, after it emerged that male film producers, or other men in similar positions, had abused their power and had attacked and harassed women for many years with impunity,” the Caliph continued. “The question is, why were women abused across the world? The answer, whether they like it or not, is the free-mixing that took place.”

Decades earlier, the fourth caliph explained the philosophy of Islamic segregation as a way “to check the flow of sexual pursuits between man and woman to a certain degree. As with live wires of electricity, the negative wire is different and the positive wire is different,” he said during a Q&A session. “If there is no insulation in between, what will happen? The flow of energy instead of taking the more difficult course and passing through some machines and devices, would make a short circuit and destroy itself.” He continued, “Islam looks at human urges with a desire to harness them and to put them to proper usage. Islam believes that if given unlimited liberty the urges and desires will ‘kick’ back and destroy the seekers of pleasure.”

While most mosques have some kind of separation between men and women, not all Muslims agree with segregation. “I don’t think that segregating decreases sexual harassment. That is not the way to decrease it,” says Alia Hogben, the executive director of the non-profit Canadian Council of Muslim Women. “It has to be something that men and women are taught. Not these external kinds of barriers to make people behave themselves.”

Hogben says religion shouldn’t be used to force women to sit separately. “I have no problem with going to parties or meetings or anything where there are only women, whether it’s religious spaces or secular spaces,” she says. “It’s more the imposition that this is how it should be.”

Back at the peace conference, Vaughan Councillor Marilyn Iafrate takes the stage to talk about her visit to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at’s annual convention in England in 2017. The event brings together people from across the globe, since it’s the central headquarters of the community and where the caliph calls home. Like many of the events organized by the Jama’at, the convention has separate halls for men and women.

“The women were running every single aspect of that event whether they were security guards, whether they were operating the very intricate international transmission equipment, whether they were the guest speakers,” said Iafrate. “They were mimicking every single thing that was going on in the men’s conference.”

Shahid says having women do all the work for the women’s side of the event makes sense. “When we’re talking about a parallel organization—one that’s not excluding women from doing the same thing as men—that means everything has to be done that is already being done by the men,” she says. “It shows that as women, we can still put on the same types and calibre of events as are organized by mixed-gender groups.”

While not all Muslim communities separate men and women, the ones that do, practise segregation in various ways. In some mosques, men and women are simply divided in the middle of the same room. In others, men might be at the front and women at the back. Or, they could be on different floors altogether. But there are some mosques where women are given less-than-ideal spaces, or where they’re not allowed at all.

It’s these kinds of mosques that inspired @EqualEntrance, a social media project which documents mosques that give equal space to women. Its founder, Ayesha Noor, grew up in Pakistan where her friends from other Muslim communities would frown at her for going to the mosque, saying it wasn’t allowed. “That was an alien concept for me because growing up, I’ve always been at the mosque,” says Noor. “But they gave me the message that it’s something un-Islamic.”

When Noor moved to the United States, she came across a blog and Twitter account called @SideEntrance which shows pictures of women’s spaces in mosques around the world—in particular, ones where women’s spaces are worse than men’s.

These spaces aren’t doing their job, Noor says. “If we’re going to do women-only spaces, make sure that women-only spaces are spaces, they’re not some shed or some gloomy basement,” she says. “We should not think of it only as a tool to stop sexual harassment. It’s more than that. It’s the empowerment of women as well.”

Knott agrees that there are ways that segregation can indeed be oppressive: women “may get worse spaces than men, be oppressed by a patriarchal ideology regarding their lesser status or place, or be denied access to power or resources as a result,” she says, noting that similar things can happen in mixed spaces as well.

But on the other hand, Knott notes that exclusive spaces can also be beneficial for women: “Such spaces can be crucial learning environments; they can be empowering, can allow women to lead and speak freely, and can give them access to activities and knowledge that might otherwise be denied them.”

Shecosystem is a space centred on feminist values, though its members include men. (Photo by Maria Iqbal)

Walking into the space at Shecosystem on Bloor Street West on a bright May afternoon feels like a relief. A tall blond-haired woman named Esther welcomes me in and shows me around. It’s a small but cozy space, housed in an industrial unit shared with other businesses. The lights are dim in the open-concept kitchen, where a couple of women chat quietly at a broad wooden table. Other women relax on the couches, headphones propped on their heads, their eyes reflecting the light from their laptop screens. Ambient music plays in the background, softly enough that women working at the desks in the adjacent study room wouldn’t be able to hear.

Past the kitchen, bright sunshine bursts through the studio. The windows are more than half the size of the walls, framing the business buildings across the street. The room is empty, except for a corner with a bench, pillows and an exercise ball. The tent is usually up, hoisted on the brick walls like a canopy, Esther tells me, gesturing to a tangle of fabric in the same corner. Across the middle of the wall hangs a large painting, showing the silhouette of an angel with wings spread, the feathers a patchwork of colours with words across her body—Self love, Thrive, Peace, Support. I later learn that the silhouette is of the space’s founder, Emily Rose Antflick, painted by Shecosystem members at the space’s six-month anniversary.

Shecosystem is a co-working space built in November 2016 that focuses on women. Though men are welcome to join, the space centres around “feminine values”—a holistic sense of self in the workplace that includes room for emotions and vulnerability, a shift from the male-dominated culture in business, Antflick tells me.

Women’s co-working spaces have been growing in popularity. Make Lemonade, a women-only co-working space opened in downtown Toronto in September 2017. A month before Shecosystem became official, The Wing opened its first location in New York. The women-only club quickly expanded across the United States and recently announced plans to make its first Canadian location in Toronto. But the club, which doesn’t allow men, is being investigated by the New York City Commission on Human Rights for possible violations to New York’s law against gender discrimination. Supporters of The Wing responded with a Twitter campaign calling out the city for antagonizing the space. The investigation raises important questions about where women’s spaces stand before the law.


Saron Gebresellassi, a human rights lawyer in Toronto, says separate spaces and services can help address the marginalization that women experience on a day-to-day basis. “Because we actually haven’t achieved full substantive equality for women in this country, that means there are special needs that we have,” she says. In Ontario, the human rights code has provisions to allow services catering to specific groups to help achieve “substantive equality.”

The litigation lawyer was involved in defending DriveHer, a cab-hailing app for women introduced in Toronto, before city officials. The service initially faced hurdles getting a permit because the city said it discriminated against men. “I basically came in to let the city know that this is not discrimination,” she says. “It’s actually the opposite—a service like this upholds the spirit of the Ontario Human Rights Code.”

As to whether gender segregation in religious spaces infringes women’s rights, the answer is less clear. “I haven’t seen a case on it, but if that day were to come, that would be a pretty major challenge for our courts to grapple with,” says Gebresellassi, noting it would mean religious freedom competing against women’s rights.

It would also mean first proving that a space where women and men sit separately is in fact discriminatory. “We may hear from a woman who actually says, ‘This is in line with our spiritual practice, this is in line with our spirituality, this is how we connect with a divine order,’ and who am I or is anyone to ever interfere with that?” Gebresellassi says. “It’s for women to decide whether they feel discriminated against or whether they feel empowered in some way, or more in tune or more in touch with their spirituality.”

Human Rights Lawyer Saron Gebresellassi explains “substantive equality” in Ontario law

Video by Maria Iqbal

Whether in front or behind, side-by-side or in different spaces altogether, women have diverse views when it comes to separate spaces. For some, women’s spaces symbolize patriarchal attitudes that suggest women are harmful or distracting to men, or simply that their views are less valued. In some cases, these attitudes are reflected in the physical architecture of spaces, where women’s rooms are an afterthought rather than an equal priority to men’s spaces.

But women’s spaces can offer much-needed alternatives in contexts where women are more vulnerable. They can offer a sanctuary from male power structures that prevent women from speaking out when they’re harassed.

When used well, separate spaces can give women opportunities to grow as leaders. They can develop skills that are normally only encouraged in men. In an era where women are taking an increasingly active role in carving out their place in the professional world, these physical spaces, whether they exist in secular or religious contexts, can be integral. “Men have always had their own spaces,” Knott says. “It seems iniquitous to deny women that opportunity at the very point where they have found a voice.”

Rather than present an obstacle in women’s ongoing fight for equality, for many women, separate spaces may pave the way to achieving just that.