Last night (Sunday night) I attended a class at the masjid after maghrib. The community here is still trying to determine the best way to utilize the space available--not just the gender split issue which I've already covered here and here, but also for classes, lectures, and other activities.
So after the prayer, there was some time spent while the organizers tried to figure out if they should hold the class in the main musallah, go upstairs, or in the partitioned room behind the musallah--the last option being their final decision. Someone then began setting up chairs for the class--much to my dismay, with a few rows up front by the teacher, and then a few chairs in a back corner of the room.
Now, if you were to walk in on this arrangement somewhere other than a mosque you might think that those corner chairs are either extra, or for some people not participating in the class. But in fact, that was where the sisters were expected to sit!
Yes, I have a problem with that. You might be thinking now of the hadith which says the best rows for men are the first rows, and the best rows for women are the last rows. And may I remind you that it is talking about prayer--and when it comes to prayer I fully and whole-heartedly agree. But in a class, listening to a speaker, I disagree entirely.
One thing I learned way back at college orientation is that the students who perform the best in a class are those who sit in the front row, and in the center--a T shape, if you will. And have you ever noticed that the most expensive tickets at a concert or sporting event are those nearest to the front? The reasons are obvious--by sitting in the front, by the teacher, students are able to read more of the instructor's body language. They are closer to him, more likely to make eye contact, more likely to maintain concentration. The teacher is able to interact with them more, and the students interact more with the teacher. Students in the front are less likely to be distracted--as the objects of distraction between them and the teacher are few.
On the other hand, students in the back have to look through rows of people to see the teacher, and are more likely to be distracted by all the objects (students, etc) between them and the teacher. They are also more likely to be distracted by anything behind them, because their proximity to the instructor is less, and therefore concentration is lower as well. Not to mention that in some cases, without amplification or a sound system, it is even more difficult to hear!
This is obvious--that students in the front are able to perform better in class because they are benefiting the most from the teacher.
And yet in this class at the masjid, where are the sisters expected to sit? In the back corner--where they are unable to see the instructor (the floor being level and the teacher sitting down), unable to hear him until he gets a microphone, and where they see rows of brothers in front of them whose slightest movements are obvious, but also have to suffer from late-comers who all must walk in front of the sisters to get a chair and sit down.
Not all classes I attend are like this, by the way. Most actually separate the class with a gap in the center, with a group of brothers to the right of the instructor, and a group of sisters to the left. (Or in some cases vice versa.) In fact, the instructors at the Bayyinah Institute actually require this--"equal opportunity but separated seating" for brothers and sisters.
So I'm not suggesting that men and women should mix--in fact I don't like having to sit right beside a dude in my engineering classes even and avoid it whenever possible. But I am saying that sisters should be able to sit at the front as well, and if they aren't allowed to do so then they are really being shafted for that class.
They are being denied the opportunity to benefit as much as the brothers are, and faced with more difficulties (seeing and hearing) and more distractions in the class.
It shouldn't be acceptable to make sisters sit in the back corner where they cannot see or hear as well. And for the record I attempted to move the row of chairs for sisters nearer to the teacher, only to have the other ladies move their chairs back. So I am not blaming a single group, here, but I think the point needs to be made that success in the class is easier and more likely for students who sit up at the front, and sisters should not be denied that opportunity. Ever.