Two months ago I had a once in a lifetime experience: I was invited to an Emirati wedding. In a vast, glittering ballroom, chandeliers festooned and arches bedecked with streaming garlands of real flowers, I sat with nearly six hundred Emirati women eating an eight-course gourmet meal, waited on by servants robed in white with gold sashes. As is common in the UAE, the wedding guests were dressed to the nines – full professional makeup, elaborate waist-length hair extensions, and high-end sequined designer gowns with plunging necklines paired with improbably spindly six-inch heels. Arab pop blasted from the speakers, and the female members of the bride’s and groom’s families stood in turn. They danced traditional dances together in front of the seated crowd, ululating and graceful in their glamorous gowns, wending their way up and down the center of the room in a processional toward the bridal bower. No photography was allowed – no cameras whatsoever were permitted in that room. I sat, my brain rapidly stultified by the rich food and blaring music, trying to create a mental video of the glamour and the dancing, trying to make sure I did not miss too many details of this extraordinary night.
And then, at the stroke of midnight, the groom came (looking pale and nervous), escorted by the broadly grinning male members of the bride’s family. And all of the sequins, all of the elaborately coiffed hair of the numerous guests, disappeared in moments under long frothy black abayas and headscarves, leaving only portions of the women’s faces, their henna tattooed hands, and their designer heels showing.** Only the bride, in that room filled with hundreds and hundreds of women, could be seen in her gorgeous gown by her husband-to-be. Only the bride’s immediate male relatives could even enter into the ballroom where the bride was seated, uncovered, surrounded by her vast network of family and friends. (Even the groom’s male relatives were forbidden entrance, and this despite the fact that all of the women other than the bride had covered themselves before any of the select few male relatives had entered.) They had entered into a sacred, private female space.
I paused to think about that female space later as I described the wedding to some male friends and colleagues who also study the Middle East. They confessed both fascination and pangs of jealousy that they had never and would never be able to attend such an event; at most they could only imagine all of the women and children and grandmothers singing and dancing. They would never see the bridal party, never take part in the bridal festivities. This was barred to them because, to put it bluntly, they have penises.
Spaces to which only one sex is allowed admission are often called “homosocial spaces” in academic literature, and they are historically far more prevalent in the Middle East than they have ever been in Europe or the United States. Yet the concept of a homosocial space – of a space that everyone knows is women’s or men’s exclusively – is not at all alien to American history or culture. Such spaces were part of everyday life during the time of Joseph Smith, Jr., and we can see vestiges of these culturally protected domains of men and women in early church history. (I’ve seen quite a few women in various blogs and social media sites chuckle delightedly at the quaint, Austen-ian propriety that comes through in the early Relief Society minutes where Joseph Smith and other men “withdraw from the room” for the ladies to do their business.)
This wasn’t just the early church leaders being excessively formal. The concept of separate spheres for men and women; of spaces and clubs or societies in which women did work that was considered uniquely their own – and which men would be uncouth, indecorous, and impolitic to barge in upon – was a common one. Both in and out of the church, women’s clubs wielded strong political power in the United States even before the Nineteenth Amendment, and the LDS Relief Society was one of a broader network of such clubs, many of which combined religion, societal improvement, and political lobbying, that worked all throughout the East and the South. I won’t take the time here to go through a history of the Relief Society in the nineteenth century, but its work independently fundraising and sending women to medical school, founding a hospital in Salt Lake, and far more indicate that it was a powerful force in early LDS life — a force that actively affected change in local communities, ensuring access to education and healthcare for men and women, and contributing materially and substantially to the local economy and local welfare programs. And, as is often cited, it had its own agenda, its own budget and its own fundraising up until correlation. In many respects it was a female-only sacred space, operating in tandem with, rather than at the behest of, male-only church spaces.
Yet today we have come to guard our male-only spaces – spaces like the priesthood session of General Conference that Ordain Women plans to request admittance to – in a way that we do not guard our female-only sacred spaces. In fact, I would argue that we no longer really have female-only sacred spaces; men no longer withdraw from rooms for the ladies to go about their business. Instead, women are required to have a priesthood holder at the church for activities, get priesthood approval for planned activities or callings, and go through priesthood channels to set even a minor agenda. As members of Ordain Women have noted, men are allowed to attend the General Relief Society meetings (indicating that it is not a female-only space), but women are not allowed to attend priesthood meetings.
The place of Ordain Women in the news right now has led me to think more broadly about the question of female sacred spaces in the LDS church, and why we no longer have them. I believe that, in addition to the significant and important question of female ordination itself, Ordain Women has tapped into a deeper pulse; that their actions touch upon a broader topic that brings many earnest Mormon women a great deal of disquiet and anxiety: Why are there spaces for men only and not for women only? Especially if we justify male-only priesthood and godliness itself in gendered terms, shouldn’t there be an explicable female equivalent, some sort of coherent corollary? Shouldn’t women have culturally acknowledged spaces of authority or privilege or sanctity in which men do not enter – or in which they can only enter at some symbolic midnight, surrounded by the trappings of tradition? And if there are no places that someone should not enter because he is a man, can someone explain why the same is not true for women?
**I was one of two Western women there that night, and I had asked (and asked and asked – this was something I absolutely did not want to get wrong) if I should cover my hair. The answer was no. As long as I covered the rest of myself when the men came – and this meant basically only showing my hands, neck, and head – I could leave my hair uncovered. I was a foreigner; they did not expect me to dress like one of them.