There seems to be confusion that those who claim that Islam obliges segregation or separation of the genders that implies it's completely prohibited for men and women to interact - ever.
Those who think that separation of gender implies this seem to then go to the extreme to claim that therefore the norm is freemixing or as we call it ikhtilaat between the sexes.
Obviously both stances are incorrect but there are certain underlying rules that need to be understood.
The first is the rule in origin between non mahrams from interacting. This rule in origin is that it's prohibited except for certain legitimate shari'a reasons.
Some may ask well how do I know the rule in origin is prohibition of ikhtilaat and ijtima between men and women.
Firstly: Men and women interacting has the potential to create other issues occurring namely procreation due to the natural attraction that exists in humans due to the procreational instinct. Such interaction will therefore require regulations. In other words it requires ahkam (laws from shari'a) to tell us how to interact due to the potential ramifications of or such interactions (children, maintenance parents, rights responsibilities etc). In other words we'd require evidence for the permission to engage in the action of interacting with the opposite gender before doing so. Because obviously we can't act outside the scope of the shari'a then we'd need evidence to permit the interaction as opposed to saying it's all halal until evidence comes to prohibit it.
Secondly: The evidence from the sunnah is very strong. But we need to be aware of certain principles in extracting the rules from the sunnah. One principle is the actions of the prophet (saw) are a source for shari'a and when the prophet (saw) was persistent upon an action then that action is considered to be an obligation. A further indication of this obligatoriness is if the action and statement breaks the current norms to set a new norm within society.
The issue around gender separation is clearly seen in this light. For instance prior to islam there was little to no laws regulating men women interaction. In fact examples exist where a series of men could fornicate with a woman till she became pregnant and then a person would identify the father out of the people who fornicated with her and so that person would be responsible for the child and mother. There was no differences in the manner by which men and women performed idolatory acts of worship nor would they separate themselves in their natural engagements.
However after islam established itself in medinah to form the first Islamic state the prophet (saw) undertook a series of rules.
1. The prophet (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam) prohibited men and women from intermixing in salah. "The best row for men is the front row, (furthest from the women's row) and the best row for women is the back row and the worst is the front row (just behind the men)." Abu dawud.
2. The prophet (saw) would tell the men to wait before leaving the mosque to allow the women to leave first. Umm Salamah said that after Allah's Messenger (saw) said "as-Salamu 'Alaykum wa Rahmatullah' twice announcing the end of prayer, women would stand up and leave. He would stay for a while before leaving. Ibn Shihab said that he thought that the staying of the Prophet (May peace and blessings be upon him) was in order for the women to be able to leave before the men who wanted to depart." Narrated by al-Bukhari
3. The prophet (saw) assigned a specific entrance to the mosque for women. Ibn 'Umar said that Allah's Messenger (May peace and blessings be upon him) said: "We should leave this door (of the mosque) for women." Naafi' said: "Ibn 'Umar never again entered through that door until he died." Narrated by Abu Dawood
4. The prophet (saw) told women to walk separately from the men as they walked through the streets. Abu Usayd al-Ansari narrated that he heard Allah's Messenger (May peace and blessings be upon him) say to the women on his way out of the mosque when he saw men and women mixing together on their way home: 'Give way (i.e., walk to the sides) as it is not appropriate for you to walk in the middle the road.' Thereafter, women would walk so close to the wall that their dresses would get caught on it. Narrated by Abu Dawood
5. The prophet (saw) prohibited a man to walk between two women or a woman to walk between two men. Messenger Muhammad (saw) said, "Do not walk between two men or between two women in the street." Abu dawud
6. Aisha (ra) explains how her friends wouldn't mix with the prophet (saw). Abu Dawud, p.284, Hadith No. 4931, it is narrated upon the authority of Aisha (ra) that she said: "I used to play with my friends and whenever the Prophet (saw) entered they would leave and whenever he (saw) went out they would come back in."
7. The women would ask for separate lessons from the prophet (saw) because the men would crowd around the messenger and the women wouldn't be able to hear. "O Messenger of Allah! The men have dominated the other days so designate a special day for us." This has been reported by al-Bukhari on the authority of Abu Sa‟eed al-Khudri
And there are many other examples.
What we can see is a consistent set of actions and statements from the prophet (saw) that ordered the separation between the sexes. From surveying these evidences (isti'qra) we take the general principle that interacting between the sexes is prohibited.
However that doesn't mean there aren't evidences that permit certain interactions. These are thus exceptions from the general rule established above. So without these circumstances then we revert back to the original rule of prohibition.
1. Islam permitted men and women to interact for education
2. Interaction for business
3. Interaction for dawah
4. Interaction for medical issues
And there are some other isolated examples of permission.
Even though one is still permitted to interact on these specific issues one still has to observe the regulations of not flirting or general socialising nor is it permissible to be in khalwa with a woman. So there's still strict regulation in place.
As a final point we can see that with all the sexual harassment and abuse of women there have now been calls to regulate the interaction between men and women in western societies. So that the interaction is free from any sexual dimension and even suggestions that men and women shouldn't be alone together.
We can see that islam naturally accords to the human fitra that prohibits general socialisation but permits interaction in a professional manner so as not to be distracted by any sexualisation we see currently today whether in schools, workplaces or even places of worship.
Indeed Islam accords perfectly to human nature. If we only understood.
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