Shouldn’t a mosque be the place where both men and women are able to find spiritual fulfillment and guidance?
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Women’s Mosque of America opened in Los Angeles last week. This should indeed concern Muslim men, and not because it is unusual – the precedent of women-only mosques in the world is not too many, and most of them are present in some Muslim-majority provinces of China.
The opening of this mosque in America should not be seen as an act of defiance though – an attempt by ‘misguided Muslim women’ to reform the religion by promoting a liberal version of Islam. Nor should men sit down to debate the permissibility of a Women-only mosque, although women-led prayers remain a controversial issue among Muslim scholars.
For once, let us not shift the focus by holding on to the belief system laid down by Islam, yet letting go of its true essence – one that gives women an equal right to worship (in places of worship and otherwise), besides many others.
While it is true that many Muslim women face oppression in the name of religion, based on age-old cultural practices that are accommodated by misogynists keen on ‘controlling’ their women, again that is not the issue in question here, so let’s not turn it into that either.
What the establishment of this gender-exclusive space is really saying to the Muslim men out there is that we have had enough of being treated as second-class citizens! It is indeed about ‘empowering women’, as Sana Muttalib, co-president of the Women’s mosque said, but not to spar with Muslim men, as some might see it.
It is a sort of protest, so to speak, for not giving Muslim women enough room, and trying to muzzle their voices. It is an objection to the constant denigration of women in the name of Islam, when it is this very religion that has allowed us rights such as education, property ownership and the right to have and voice our opinions. And it is an objection against the discouragement women face when they attempt to frequent their place of worship.
Let’s face it – men all over the world have a problem with women’s presence in mosques. Back home in Pakistan, womenfolk going to mosques find themselves alienated, if not ridiculed and questioned.
More often than not, this interrogation is carried out by women themselves, who see it their responsibility as ‘the right Muslims’ to guide the direction of our spirituality, even if that means supporting over-bearing patriarchal traditions that have nothing to do with religion.
Elsewhere in the world, the situation is no better. As a tourist, I have been to many mosques around the world. Often, my husband has had to take pictures of the main area of the mosque to show me the beautiful dome and the calligraphy inside, while I sulk in a smaller, less lit-up space of the same mosque.
Quite often, it is in a tiny room at the back or corner of the main area, and in the US and places where basements are a norm, below the actual mosque, that the ‘faithful’ women gather, often accompanied by two or more children. These places seem more like afterthoughts rather than a genuine effort to accommodate women.
Meanwhile, by limiting access to the main mosque, women also have limited, or no access to the Imam, whose advice and direction are valuable reasons for believers to pray in the mosque. Shouldn’t a mosque be the place where both Muslim men and women are able to find spiritual fulfilment and guidance?
For me, that is suffice reason to want a mosque where I can roam freely to admire this place that is supposed to infuse me with solace, where I am not forbidden from entering and praying in the ‘main’ area, and where I can raise my concerns, voice my fears, and ask my questions — about gender relations, marital issues, child-bearing and rearing amongst many others. And yes, as an educated Muslim woman there ARE many more that I do want to ask.
This women-only mosque signals a moment of reckoning and change in the Muslim community – already wracked by ethnic and sectarian differences. But instead of criticizing the move, the need is to try and resolve these differences, and work towards making mosques all over the world more open to both men and women, so that our future generations learn gender equity when they go to the mosque. And then there will be no need for women-only spaces of worship to make women feel safe or empowered.
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