The beautiful Sakirin mosque in Istanbul built by a female designer, Zeynep Fadillioglu, who made sure the women had equal access to the space and facilities.
There are some things that just stick in your memory and form a part of your subconscious– almost a lens through which you view the world, having forgotten when or even if you had put it on.
This past Friday, I became conscious of one such lens that I carry around with me when I went to Wembley mosque after a long time. I felt like I didn’t gain much from my prayer because of the cramped space and less-than-perfect shape the women’s room and outer courtyard was in (I haven’t seen the men’s side, so I have no idea what it’s like). If it had just been the superficialities of it, I might have been more compromising and understanding, but for me it struck a deeper nerve. It reminded me of all the times I’ve gone to a mosque and been unhappy with the facilities provided to women. So much so that sometimes I’m overly critical even when the facilities for men are just as bad (as Asim attests is the case at Wembley mosque. Or in other words, “it’s nothing personal against women, don’t be so over-sensitive”). Wembley mosque is tiny and insufficient for the number of people who come to pray. I was standing outside and entirely missed the khutbah in just trying to figure out whether I should wait outside or go in or wait for the next prayer that would be in 20 minutes.
It’s hard for me to articulate all the things that annoyed me but for a start let me recount my experience of ‘brothers’ at mosques. Either they’re overly helpful telling me to “Try to squeeze in, Jazakallah” when I’m waiting outside for the next prayer to start…or they’re not at all helpful; crowding out all the exits in the courtyard because they are more in number. Even though they see a small group of women inching towards the exit, they don’t have the patience to wait and let them cross– knowing well that we can’t or won’t jostle and elbow our way through. I was stubborn (read: dheet and besharam) enough to walk into the throng and loudly exclaim “excuse me” whereby some old gentleman said “let the ladies cross please”, but other than my other big African sisters who followed my example, I doubt many other women would have done that. It’s a small incident, but it put me in a foul mood.
On the way back recounting this to Asim, he thought I was being a bit over critical since the major issue was that of the size of the mosque and the resources available to them rather than sexist attitudes. I wondered why I was never able to let go of this critical stance that I carried with me into mosques and why I was always analyzing the facilities for women rather than just focusing on my prayer. Sometimes I worry I probably get no spiritual benefit of going to a mosque and just get hung up on this aspect.
That’s when I remembered a documenary by a Canadian filmmaker called Zarqa Nawaz titled “Me and the Mosque” that I had seen many years ago at McGill. It must have had a very profound influence on me as I still remember it and can’t shake off my quest for women-friendly mosques. The documentary is very well-made and has a light narrative style exploring the place of women in mosques in North America and particularly Canada by focusing on “discussions about the historical role of women in the Islamic faith, the current state of mosques in Canada and personal stories of anger, fear, acceptance and defiance… And Nawaz herself speaks of the spiritual longing that comes from belonging to an institution that doesn’t want you” (National Film Board of Canada). One of the themes that struck me was how generally all over the world the space for women at mosques was not as accommodating as it had been during the time of the Prophet. All these barriers and strict segregation hadn’t been a feature of the Prophet’s mosque.
Seeing this documentary at university, around the same time when Amina Wadud led prayers in America and created a huge furore and controversy, articulated many of the frustrations I would feel going to the mosque and still do. For those who don’t know, Aminda Wadud led a Friday prayer of a mixed congregation of over 100 men and women in the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York on March 18, 2005, “breaking with the tradition of having only male imams (prayer leaders). Three mosques had refused to host the service and the museum that had agreed to host it pulled out after a bomb threat”, as my wiki search confirms. This event for me was a watershed in terms of my search of women’s place in Islamic leadership, in mosques and beyond, and just generally trying to understand why women couldn’t be imams and what sort of cultural or theological issues were at stake. I must have frustrated my circle of close friends who had to listen to me day in and day out asking and trying to answer the same questions. I think some of them perhaps considered them heretical, but most were quite accepting and we had long and heated debates. I found like-minded friends too who shared my concerns (through my Women’s Studies courses, especially a course called “Women in Judaism and Islam”).
This was the cover of a McGill Daily article featuring a peaceful sit-in the MSA had organized to protest infront of the administration building. I was also there.
Ironically for me this was not the best time at McGill to be raising women’s issues at the mosque or prayers, since even the right to pray had been taken away by the university administration. Muslim students on campus had had a prayer space (musallah) for many years from which we were evicted on grounds of secularism and we went on many protests and meetings trying to contest the administration’s stance, to the extent of even lodging a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission, to no avail. So when we didn’t even have a space to pray, it was almost besides the point to be arguing over whether women could lead the prayer or whether they should stand beside men or behind them. I just did a quick search and it seems unfortunately the issue has still not been resolved after all these years. Many universities and colleges in Canada provide students with multi-faith prayer rooms, open to everyone not just Muslims, (which is what the McGill MSA had been asking for) but that was not accepted by the McGill administration.
A friend recently wrote an article on the “30 mosques project” that two young men in New York undertook to pray at a different mosque every day of Ramadan. I thought it was such a wonderful idea and yet I couldn’t help but think that if the ‘experiment’ had been carried out by one man and one woman, perhaps their experiences would have been completely different. Or perhaps not, perhaps I’m the only cynic out there. It made me ponder on my own experiences at London’s different mosques this Ramadan. I went for Taraweeh to Harrow mosque (the brand new mosque that was targeted by the BNP demonstrators a few weeks ago) and was again disappointed that even at a mosque of that size, women were again confined to a small narrow strip on the side of the prayer hall. Granted the mosque is under construction and more men than women come for taraweeh prayers, but it was still disappointing. Hopefully once the mosque is complete, it would have a more women-friendly space. One of the mosques, I liked praying at this Ramadan was the East London LMC where we could see the imam from the top balcony while we prayed. Regent’s mosque is really nice as well and while I enjoyed the iftaar and prayer, it’s sometimes too crowded with screaming children galore to highten your spirituality.
In countries like Pakistan, it is very hard to even find mosques that have a space for women. So many of us growing up in the South Asian context, never went to the mosque and were told that women should pray at home. It was only after we went to Umrah or went abroad that we went to the mosque or congregational prayers. So initially having any room or space, no matter how inadequate, seemed like a vast improvement. But over time I realized that it wasn’t enough. Not only did we have a right to access mosques, we also had a right to pray in the main hall or at least have access to the khutba and imam in the same way as men did. I remember seeing photos of mosques in Indonesia (if I remember correctly then the Istiqlal Mosque allows women to pray in the main prayer hall) and wanted more mosques to become women-friendly, whether it meant having childcare centers or allowing women to pray in the main hall or being able to get in touch with the imam easily.
Ideally, I would like men and women to be able to pray in the main hall, segregated but side by side rather than women behind the men. I would also like women to be able to lead prayers and become imams and leaders at mosques. I want mosques to become community centers, being open and inviting to men, women, children and non-Muslims…anyone who wants to go. I love the feeling of community and spirituality one gets in big open spaces where you pray with others. These spaces are hard to find when one is living in the diaspora in a Muslim minority country and ironically exist in Muslim majority countries but not always accessible to women. I wish our community in the UK can reach a point of self-sufficiency of having these spaces where women feel welcome as well.