Women need the mosque

A picture of a large white mosque with three domes, one much bigger than the other two, and four minarets in the Turkish style. There is red scaffolding on part of the building. In the background are mountains, with a gap in the middle.
The Namazgah mosque in Tirana, Albania

The issue of women’s access to the mosque and the inadequate space for women in many mosques in the UK has been a thorny issue in the community for decades, way back before blogs (though this blog has covered it in the past); the issue was covered in at least one issue of Q-News back in the day. Many mosques in the UK simply have no spaces for women to pray at all; many have a fraction of the space afforded to men, and often the space is inaccessible or inadequate: dingy, dirty, lacking ablution facilities, lacking access to the imam. The root of the problem seems to lie in the custom “back home” in India and Pakistan where it’s not usual for women to pray in the mosque and where the dominant scholarly understanding is that they should not. Earlier today I saw a brother who did not use an actual name, just a Twitter handle, post a long series of proofs for not allowing women into the mosque, or restricting their access to them, dismissing the women who objected as ‘emotional’ and being addressed by someone else as ‘Maulana’. Yet he failed to grasp the differences between the time when those narrations happened, and today, and it’s not just “that was such a better time than today”.

We aren’t living in a mostly Muslim country. We are (allegedly) three to four million out of seventy million in the UK. In Madinah, Kufah or Baghdad in the early centuries of Islam, there were Muslim institutions that were capable of attending to Muslims’ needs in one way or another. In the UK now, the major Muslim spaces in most towns and cities are mosques, or at least a mosque is their centrepiece — sometimes there is a canteen, a shop, various offices, a lecture hall, a clinic and a few other amenities but it will be called a mosque even if it’s officially titled the “Islamic Centre”. There are Muslim businesses such as restaurants, but those aren’t places many Muslim women consider it safe or appropriate to be. But the primary purpose of a mosque is a space to pray, and the prayer is a duty, and the prerequisites of a duty, the things that make it possible, are also duties. Yes, it’s permissible to put a prayer mat down anywhere, in the street or the office, but the mosque is a place designed for Muslims to offer the Islamic ritual prayer and the street is not. A mosque has a marked qibla (prayer direction) and a washing room designed for the ritual ablution; the street and office do not. Crucially, a mosque offers a place where prayer can be offered without distraction or interruption; the street does not. The street is not even a safe place to pray in many places, especially for women.

There is another reason that perhaps did not apply in the time of the early Muslims: in England in particular, we have a short day in the winter time and there are three prayer times within about four hours in the afternoon. If a family is making a shopping trip, for example, to kit out a new home, they will likely need to pray at least once. Some shopping centres have prayer rooms, but most do not. How can it be justified to allow the men to perform their duty but not the women? Of course, women work, and some of these jobs really need doing by a woman, so the demand that they should “just stay home” does not hold any water. Some women are converts who actually need to go to the mosque as their families will not tolerate their salaat; others have homes that are not peaceful and they cannot count on being able to pray undisturbed. Others are homeless.

Women do not have to attend the mosque to the same degree men have to. The Friday congregational prayer, in particular, is not compulsory for them. However, a congregational prayer is the principal opportunity people have to hear the Qur’an being recited properly by a human voice rather than a tape of it and to receive in-person Islamic education or counsel, and to pray in the company of other Muslims undisturbed. We all know that the company of practising Muslims is important for maintaining iman; the mosque is where many of us meet other Muslims and make friends. It’s also important for receiving good advise and correcting mistakes that might not come to anyone’s attention if women just did what these men think they should and prayed at home. In a situation where Muslims are a minority, the justifications these men provide for denying women access to the mosque do not hold any water. It’s a practice which is damaging to the community.

Back in the early 2000s, there was a book published called “Port in a Storm” by Shaikh Nuh Keller, demonstrating that the correct direction of prayer in North America was north-east rather than south-east, as this was the straight line to Makkah in light of the curvature of the earth. I thought this was a strange position to take given that Makkah is both south and east of anywhere in the USA, and mentioned to a brother at a gathering that this ruling would mean that the qibla in some places, such as Seattle, would be more north than east. “Would the salaf (early Muslims) have done such a thing?” I asked a brother. “The salaf weren’t living in Seattle,” he responded. The salaf also weren’t living in England where three prayer times occur between 12 noon and 4pm in the winter, and were the powerful group in their society at all times except when in Makkah in the first few years of the mission. They were not vulnerable. The mosque was not the only Muslim space and there was not the need for it that there is here. Any organisation running a mosque that clings to Subcontinental custom and refuses Muslim women the benefits of access to the mosque is failing to serve its community’s needs and obstructing people from fulfilling their duties in Islam. And Allah knows best.

Image source: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, via Wikimedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 4.0 licence.

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