I was once in a small study circle with two women, a man, and our sheikh. There was a time I remember that he entered, gave us women a smile and a polite nod. Upon turning to the man, his smile broadened, and he strode over, shook his hand, and gave him a warm hug.
I suddenly felt very inexplicably sad and jealous that my male colleague could have such contact with our teacher. And I felt ridiculous for having that reflex. I didn’t even let myself think of it further.
Now I see the entourage of male devotees surrounding sheikhs, escorting them to their meals during the breaks in the seminars, being in proximity to intimate conversations they are having amongst themselves. Yes, there are occasionally females who are doing so as well. But never with the easy comfort and familiarity that men can.
This is the effect of not having sheikhas who are as commonplace as their male counterparts. The divide deepens. Just because we can attend lectures by esteemed male scholars doesn’t mean that we get to be close to them in the way men can. Just because we can be counselled by male teachers, can ask our chaplains anything, doesn’t mean that we’re getting the camaraderie and sense of kinship we so keenly need. Women are blessed with many, many gifts of love, but the special love for a spiritual guide: that has been denied to most of us.
Adab in the context of inter-gender relations is important, and it is for a reason that this adab gets cemented in the form of cultural mores. I respect and understand that. But having access and the scholar-disciple intimacy we read about in our traditions–it’s not something we can relate to.
I’m personally not in favour of a female imamate, but I’d really, really like this dynamic to turned on its head. I’d like it to be a woman whom men are leaning in and listening to; I’d like the flurry of activity around her while men hang back respectfully. I’d like the men to know what it feels like to approach an elder of the opposite gender and thirst for closeness while being so wary of keeping appropriate distances.
Male colleagues and friends abound. But as for those who can guide and instruct us in matters of faith: adab and a polite distance it shall always be.