By Amardeep Bassey
The irony of leading the men who once balked at her mere presence in the mosque isn’t lost on Maysoon Shafiq, as she prepares to fulfil her ambition of becoming the country’s first female mosque leader.
But it’s the reaction of other women that has been the biggest concern for the 31-year-old mother of three, as she completes a trailblazing six-month intensive programme training women for leadership roles in Britain’s mosques.
Organised by the Muslim Council of Britain, the course offers a unique chance for women to develop skills which could benefit them in senior positions on a mosque leadership committee, such as public speaking training and event planning.
“It’s more a cultural taboo for women to attend mosques than because of any religious instruction,” says Maysoon, a financial services worker born and brought up in Huddersfield.
“In the prophet Mohammed’s time his wife Ayesha was recognised as a leader of the early Muslims, but that tradition has been lost and I want to bring it back in the 21st century.”
Few mosques in the UK have women on their trustee or management boards which are usually elected by the congregation. Currently, men outnumber women on all charity trustee boards by two to one, according to the Charity Commission.
Announcing the new course in March the Muslim Council Of Britain (MCB) said: “This lack of diversity is unacceptable and it is essential for the management boards of mosques and third-sector organisations in general to reflect the communities that they serve in order to function effectively.”
According to its own research, the MCB claims more than a quarter of the UK’s 1,975 mosques in Britain don’t have prayer area for women, and 28% do not offer any facilities for women
Maysoon has a legal background, having worked in the sector for 10 years, and has a Masters Degree in education (she also speaks six languages). Using her experience, Maysoon is currently teaching at the Abu Bakr mosque in West Yorkshire.
“I just teach in the mosque, but I wanted to take it further,” she says. “I didn’t want to limit myself because I could see that the mosque needed a female voice amongst all the elderly men who run it.
“The same men who would make it quite clear with some of their comments and reactions that they felt uncomfortable with women coming to the mosque to pray as is their right.”
In August, Muslim women in Scotland launched a campaign for equal prayer space and inclusion in decision-making bodies. The Scottish Mosques for All campaign said: “It is unfortunate that many mosques fail to provide basic access for Muslim women to use the facility to pray, or the quality of the space can often be inadequate and not suitable.
“It is also unfortunate that many mosques have limited or no women present at mosque trustee or managerial level, either intentionally preventing women from taking up these roles or not sufficiently providing a welcoming atmosphere where women feel comfortable to get involved.
“The place and role of women in mosques is in real crisis in the UK and elsewhere, and this status quo must change.”
Another organisation, Open My Mosque, is calling for a commitment from mosques to gender equality, and the Bradford-based Muslim Women’s Council is raising funds for a mosque led and governed by women, “based on the principles of openness, inclusivity, social justice and sanctuary”.
“The mosque was traditionally a place for the Muslim community in its entirety to pray and meet and mingle with others,” says Maysoon.
She added: “The mosque was a community hub where sisters could relate to each other and bond. Now if women have a personal problem its very awkward to speak to a male imam and instead women are told to discuss things with his wife or sister.
“We have no female religious role models or even strong leaders that we can look up to and aspire to be and I want to change that.”
Maysoon expects some “pushback” from some of the men, and the MCB training programme recognises that by offering training on conflict resolution.
“We’re told to try and put a positive spin on any pushback we get from some of the men and to try and always be constructive.
“Some men might try to provoke me so they can say I’m not suitable to lead but I’m ready for that and I’m quite looking forward to seeing the look on some of their faces when they have to take instructions from me.
“I don’t have anything against the men at the mosque at all because they too are a product of their upbringing, usually in Pakistan, and I want our interaction to be smooth and even fun.”
What Maysoon says she finds more daunting is dealing with women who simply can’t fathom the notion of a woman being in charge of a mosque? “That’s going to be more tricky, and will be the first war I need to win,” Maysoon says.
“I’m expecting more of a mixed reaction from other women than men. They have been brought up to believe that the mosque is the dominion of men only and some will never accept a woman being part of the set-up even when they see it.
“It’s not even a theological issue, what we need is a cultural shift.
“The course has provided me with an aspect on the scholarly approach to women in mosques and although I can’t take the role of an imam and lead a mixed congregation I am more aware of women’s rights in Islam.
“The training also showed me how to successfully start and grow projects and an understanding of board room dynamics.”
She added: “When mosques offer space for women, they should see it as a right, not a favour.
“All I can do is smile and explain that it’s the 21st century and that ultimately it is good for everyone if more women like me take up leadership positions.”
Maysoon says she plans to organise simple coffee mornings and outings to local amenities to try and break the ice with her fellow female worshippers.
“I want women to feel like it’s a safe place where they can be themselves and have social interaction that isn’t just about religion within the precincts of a mosque.
“It’s about changing their mindset so that they recognise that they can have influence and help shape the workings of their local mosque.
“In time I’d like to offer activities like self-defence classes for women and also teach them English and other skills that will help them in their lives outside the mosque.”
A spokesperson for the MCB said some of the themes covered in the events include, purpose and leadership, safeguarding and “communicating and influencing in the mosque context”.
Maysoon said her family and friends encouraged her to attend the MCB course, which began in March and finishes this month. “My husband has been a massive supporter and my two children Ifrah and Aahil tell everyone they are very proud of their mom, which is very inspiring.”