Aaliyah Hussain shares her experience of visiting her local mosque and why more must be done to accommodate for women in the institutions that form the micro-ummahs of our local communities.
Last Ramadan I was turned away from the Jummah prayer at my local Mosque. ‘Sorry sister, no space’. I wonder how many women have heard that before. The humiliation, the pain was so overwhelming that I felt tears well up in my eyes. Why should I be denied the same spiritual experience just because I am a woman? Do I not long to stand with my fellow Muslims in the congregational prayer? Do I not deserve to absorb the unique atmosphere and witness the khutbah in this most blessed of months? Must I pray only in isolation, in my own four walls, or else travel somewhere else, not in my own community, to a Mosque where they have a dedicated women’s area? The unfairness grates.
‘Must I pray only in isolation, in my own four walls?’
The worst part was that I had spent the last 10 minutes convincing my four year old son that women are actually allowed to go to the Mosque, that it’s not only for boys and Daddies. I think he finally believed me, and I could see the anticipation and excitement on his little face. As we were getting out of the car, two men spotted us and politely informed us that we were not permitted to use the Masjid today; my son immediately burst into tears. A child’s reaction is often the most honest and true representation of what we should all be feeling – in this case, shock, indignation and an instinctive sense that an injustice was being done. He protested, ‘But you said ladies can come, Mummy! I don’t want to go home, I want to pray in the Mosque!’ This is exactly how I wanted to react. The whiny little child inside wanted to stamp my foot and have a tantrum.
‘But the prophet said women can pray here! You’re not allowed to turn me away! Please let me in!’
But instead, like adults, we had a little to-ing and fro-ing about the various reasons why women couldn’t come to the Jummah prayer. According them it boiled down to nothing more than a simple lack of space. This surprised me greatly, as I had prayed Taraweeh in the very same mosque just a few nights ago and knew for certain that they had a small room for women behind the larger room for men. But due to the increased numbers of Jummah worshippers in Ramadan, they had re-appropriated the women’s room for all the extra (important) men. Apparently this was common knowledge, but in my naivety this thought had not even crossed my mind. The idea that the Mosque would be closed to my gender on some of the most spiritually rewarding prayers of the year seemed illogical and tyrannical.
I fought back tears as I kissed my son and promised I would take him to another Masjid, or Daddy could take him next week. Why did I feel so upset, even betrayed? Was it irrational? Maybe the fasting was getting to me! Upon reflection, I think the reason for my strong emotions was that I was forced to accept a situation in front of my son, which went against all the values I am trying to bring him and his brother up with. It was disempowering and humiliating. And of course, as a mother I felt guilty; I had built him up, only to let him down. It was the exact opposite of what I had set out to do, which had only been to give him a taste of the magic of Ramadan, and to show him the wonderful unity of the Muslim community where we live – and it is a wonderful community. I am always looking for opportunities to share my positivity about our religion, and give him good childhood memories so that faith will have positive connotations for him growing up. This is particularly important for those children born into a post-9/11 political climate, where negative messages about Islam and Muslims are relentlessly pervading their developing psyches.
‘Why did I feel so upset, even betrayed? Was it irrational?’
Sadly, this time it wasn’t the media or government creating a bad impression of Islam – it was the Muslim community itself. In that instant, he witnessed that Islam does not treat men and women equally. They say there is no space, but I didn’t see them turning any men away! There is no limit to how many men can pray, as they are happy to set up areas outside if need be. They say, with no remorse whatsoever, that they have no choice to use the women’s room on a Friday because so many men turn up, and that it is ‘just the way it is’.
I disagree – there is always a choice. In my opinion this is nothing more than the selfish and flagrant usurpation of women’s rightful spaces to pray. The so-called ‘women’s room’ is ours (aren’t we lucky?) until a man shows up and says ‘Gimme’. I am a man, so I can come and snatch away what you thought was yours. I am a man, so it is more important for me to fulfill my spiritual needs. And why is that? Because a man’s soul is worth more than a woman’s? Those who argue that a man’s right to pray in a Masjid is ‘God-given’ whilst a woman’s mere ‘privilege’ is resource-dependent, only betray their fundamental belief in the inferiority of women. Full stop. Dressing up the decision using theological argumentation is mere smoke and mirrors. Men will continue to find ways to exclude women from places of worship and other areas of public life until they fully accept a very simple truth – that men and women are equal in the eyes of God. It really is as simple as that.
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To get involved in discussions surrounding mosques and women, check out the Muslim Council of Britain’s Women’s Working Group.
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Aaliyah is the founder of WeRise – empowering women against racism, injustice, sexism and extremism. She is in the final year of her PhD on Afghan womens’ rights in the ‘war on terror’ at the University of Warwick.