Impressions of Women Only Jihad

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I had been eagerly anticipating Channel 4’s Dispatches programme Women Only Jihad, which follows a group of female activists from the Muslim Public Affairs Committee as they fight to get admission to various mosques. One of these is in Ilford, Essex, and the other in Blackburn, Lancashire. The issue of women’s access to mosques is a major issue throughout the Muslim communities in both the UK and USA; Sara Umm Zaid has written about it many times, including about one incident (also here) where she and some friends were physically barred from entering by some rather unfriendly men. More recently, given the disgusting conditions of some women’s areas in mosques (Safiyyah Ally has an entry on one in Saudi Arabia, but the same situation is to be found in the West too), some women, including UZ, have changed their position to support women praying in the main prayer area behind a curtain. In a number of mosques, however, there simply is no facility and women are simply not allowed entry, which is something the girls from MPACUK were seeking to remedy. (More: Osama Saeed.)

The reason many mosques run by immigrants from the Indian subcontinent refuse to admit women is the same as that for which most mosques in Pakistan, probably among other places, do the same: they regard the mosque as the men’s space, on the grounds that Sayyiduna Omar, radhi Allahu ‘anhu, decided to stop women praying in the mosque on the grounds that the women in his time were not behaving appropriately. There is also the well-known fact that a woman’s prayer is more meritorious when conducted in private, preferably in the most private part of the woman’s home. There are a host of reasons why many people demand that women be admitted to mosques, including that a woman may be far from her home and still need someone to pray (such as when shopping or attending college), and a prayer offered in a mosque is vastly more private than one offered in the only other places available: the street, or the public park. There may be reasons why a woman cannot pray at home: it may be shared with, or owned by, hostile non-Muslims or there may be no peace and quiet there.

For these reasons and others, there are good reasons why women might demand space in mosques to pray. Since prayer in a mosque is compulsory for men living nearby and not for the women, and because attending the Jumu’ah prayer is obligatory for men and not for women, there are good reasons why the women’s space is nowhere near most of the mosque’s space, but it should at least be there. However, given past experience, I had doubts about what sort of approach the MPACUK women would take, and my suspicions proved to be justified.

The women’s approach was to doorstep the mosque, accompanied by a Channel 4 camera crew, and demand to be admitted to pray. The men at the mosque in Balfour Road in Ilford, unsurprisingly, refused them access, were hostile to the film crew which seemed to have appeared unannounced, and slammed the door in the women’s faces. At a mosque in Blackburn, their attempts had a similar result, and eventually an elderly man reasoned with them by telling them that the other men will not allow them, and that they should give up and go home.

MPACUK proceeded to take the matter up with the Muslim Council of Britain and the Lancashire Council of Mosques, and in a meeting with the latter, the limitations of the MPACUK approach to this, and to everything, became clear. Some of the MPACUK people, including the well-known Asghar Bukhari, proved unable to discuss the issue calmly and reasonably, instead talking over those with whom they were supposed to be negotiating. The talks degenerated into a shouting match. As on so many other occasions, he proved to be his usual hot-headed, blustering self, demonstrating once again that he’s in no position to represent the Muslim community or even to be anywhere near where sensitive negotiations are going on.

The mosque agreed to let the ladies into the mosque, but on their way from the LCM meeting to the mosque, they were met by a group of the brothers from the mosque and shown into the mosque’s ladies’ annexe, which they did not film but showed the ladies coming out, telling the world that they had not prayed because the conditions inside were filthy and smelly, which is quite believable given what has been written about women’s spaces elsewhere. It then turned out, however, that that mosque was allowing women in to hear the sermons in Ramadan, which begs the question of why they did not simply join them (unless they were not being provided with spaces to pray). There was also a house which was used by local Muslim women for prayer and teaching, so it is not true that there are simply no facilities for women in the area.

Two further issues must be raised regarding this programme. The first is that several of the women were not wearing proper hijab, by which I mean that hair was showing or that their scarves were thin enough to show the colour of their hair. Normally I would not criticise a Muslim woman who appeared in the media for this, because it is so common, but here it undermined any claim that this was a campaign by religious women, not “Islamic feminists” of the Asra No’mani type, seeking access to the mosque to fulfil religious duties. In addition, these women were demanding admission to the mosque for salaat, and salaat is not valid for a woman unless her hair is covered.

Second, the Balfour Road mosque is actually just a few streets away from Ilford’s own Albert Road mosque (you can see for yourself on this street map; the Balfour Road mosque is located roughly where the red and yellow arrow is, while Albert Road is the next road south from Winston Way), and Albert Road mosque, which is bigger, has always admitted women although it only opened in 1996 (women are also admitted to the mosques in Eton Road and Woodford Avenue). Access to Balfour Road is not exactly the most pressing of needs - perhaps they might have found one that is not a stone’s throw from a nice new mosque which does admit them? There are, in addition, ten mosques (including one run by Shi’ites) in Blackburn which admit women which are listed in the Muslim Directory (as of the 2004-5 edition), although there are depressingly many in that town which have no facilities for women, including one with space for 3,500 men.

In short, this programme was a useful guide to how not to campaign for better facilities for Muslim women. It showed the women as overly aggressive and confrontational, although it gave no indication of whether the women had approached the mosques concerned about gaining access. As a sister wrote on DeenPort this evening, “you don’t get a group of sisters to gatecrash jummah and cause havoc like that and expect to be listened to”. If it is necessary to force the issue, it cannot be done with just a handful of women from outside town turning up unannounced; you need a large contingent of the town’s own Muslim women to descend on the mosque, having forewarned the management of what will be happening.

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