During Ramadan or Eid, if you walk into an average size mosque in the United States, you will see it is crowded. Good luck finding space to stand, let alone pray! Space is limited. You may feel uncomfortable and unable to properly concentrate on your worship. The good news is, at most other times of the year, you will easily find space and worship much more comfortably. The prayer area has plenty of space for all people, unless….you are female. That’s the bad news.
Not all mosque attendees are made equal. For women, finding a comfortable space at the mosque is challenging at almost all mosques and not just during holidays or Jumu’ah prayers on Friday, but usually whenever they attend. Why is that?
Two reasons come to mind. Women’s physical space is either, located in a completely separate room devoid of visual and audio access to the lecture, speaker and congregational worship; or, located behind curtains or barrier that also prevent them from necessary interactive communication for a successful, meaningful worship experience. Women are struggling to identify a physical space at the mosque to satisfies their mental, intellectual and spiritual needs.
During the early years of Islam, women were able to share the main prayer area with access to the speaker. They remained engaged and were active members. The story of the second Caliph Umar Ibn Al Khatab and the woman who stood up in the middle of the mosque and pointed out that his proposed policy for putting a cap on dowry violated Islamic law, exemplifies the type of important interactions across the gender divide that may take place at the mosque. Can you imagine a similar scenario in most of today’s mosques?
Some 60%-90% of all communication is conveyed non-verbally. What this means is that words do not matter nearly as much as the gestures, voice tone and pitch and facial expressions made by the speaker. The audience needs to see the speaker to get the most out of what is said. Moreover, interactivity is lost when speakers and audience members can not see or hear each other. So how can women communicate their comments, questions or expressions to the speaker if they cannot see or hear him? And how can the speaker evaluate the efficacy of their own speeches if they are unable to see or hear all the audience? This situation is not beneficial for everyone present.
Communication is essential and it matters tremendously. It is what drives people to work collaboratively toward success. If women are unable to communicate or be communicated to effectively at the mosque, the center of a Muslim’s life, then where and and to whom else should they turn? This issue is addressed in the booklet, ” Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers: Working Together to Reclaim Our Heritage” written by the New York City-based organization, Women in Islam and the Islamic Social Services Association, and recognized by the Islamic Society of North America. It points out that when women are not welcomed at the mosque, they begin to work independently, thus causing more fracturing and division in the community. What a loss for everyone when women are denied active participation in their communities!
Women are among the most hardworking, active individuals at the mosques: teaching children at weekend schools, staffing summer camps, volunteering during community events to help set up, cook or clean and simply being there with their children to establish love in their hearts for the mosque. So it perplexes me that women’s opinions are not factored in the decisions made by mosque leaders-decisions that directly affect women in the community, particularly about the space in which they pray and how they fail to interact with speakers.
When women are excluded from conversations such as khutbahs, speaker sessions or workshops in the mosque, they feel alienated. Women have the right to this learning and Mosque leadership needs to grant them space to access it. After all, the physical space is what creates mental, spiritual and social space for the community to grow healthy and united. If women are unable to find their space at the mosque, they will discontinue coming and so will their families. How will that affect the development towards a healthy and united community?
We can work together to change this situation to ensure a healthy growth of our community. Surely, good models of women-friendly mosques exist–I have been to a few. Mosque attendees need to speak up and share what they know about these better models and how they function. Write to your mosque leaders and governing board members to let them know that you care about your space and you want a comfortable, meaningful one; give the example of other working mosque models. It doesn’t matter whether you are a man or woman, young or old; you can speak up for the rights of others as you would for your own. The problem needs to be acknowledged so that steps are taken to resolve it.
It is then up to Mosque leaders to reach out to existing women-friendly mosques. Leaders need to visit, observe and learn from these successful mosque models. Speak to the women in these inclusive communities. Talk with the leaders who follow the Islamic authentic tradition of an open main prayer area, for men and women alike. Initiate a movement of “open space for all” and invite the women. Only then, will mosques be able to improve and become a welcoming home for individuals yearning to find peace, guidance and good company. There is no better place for this type of therapy than a mosque, but only if it is welcoming.
Allah states in the Quran, “The believing men and women are protectors and helpers of each other. They (collaborate) to promote all that is good and oppose all that is evil; establish prayers and give charity, and obey Allah and his Messenger. Those are the people whom Allah would grant mercy. Indeed Allah is Exalted and Wise. “(Al-Tawbah 9:71). Mosque leaders need to work together to guarantee equal and open space for all people seeking to worship and learn.
For the men and women who have a problem including women in the main prayer area, perhaps they can find their space behind the curtain or in a separate room with equal audiovisual opportunity; just as long as women decide for themselves where their space should be and the women who wish to be actively involved in the learning, get to do so.
This article is published in Azizah Magazine Volume 7 Issue 2. To read more of Azizah Magazine, purchase their latest issue now.