By Shelina Janmohamed
December 17, 2018
Back when I was a new student in a British university town, I found myself outside a local mosque when it was time to pray. It’s an experience I will never forget. Like many UK Masjids, it had been converted from a small house. I knocked on the door and a man opened it. I asked him if I could come in to pray. “We don’t have space for women,” he said. The room behind him was empty.
“I could just come in and pray over there,” I said, gesturing toward the empty space. “I won’t take long, and there’s no one else here.”
He shook his head, and shut the door.
That was the first and last time I put myself in such a position. However, according to my female Muslim friends – many of them smart and successful women – it's a fairly common experience. Far too often they want to say their prayers, but instead end up sitting in their cars outside mosques, waiting for their husbands.
According to recent reports, more than a quarter of British mosques offer no facilities for Muslim women to pray. Of the remainder that do, access is often restricted and space limited. It is humiliating to be excluded from the congregational experience in such an unceremonious way.
Some people argue that women don’t need to come to the mosque and that it’s better for them to pray at home. Aside from this idea being theologically disputed, it doesn’t make any sense. For instance, if a woman is on the move, getting home to pray isn’t an option.
Still, matters of logistics aren’t really the issue here, anyway. The point we need to focus on is that excluding women denies what a mosque is and what it should be.
The Masjid is not only – as its literal name suggests – a building used for the ritual of prayer. It is also a communal space, a hub of social interaction, a place for bringing people together and for the acquisition of knowledge. Being part of a congregation and a wider community provides a vital sense of belonging and spiritual upliftment in and of itself. Also, when women are barred from the mosque, children often are too, which makes it an unfamiliar place for them. Nobody wants that.
If women are not able to join their friends and neighbours at the mosque, then where should they go? If they can’t use places of worship to gain knowledge and discuss the issues of the day, to whom will they turn?
Fortunately, young Muslim women around the world are taking steps to tackle the exclusion they have felt. Open My Mosque is a UK-based social media campaign that encourages places of worship to create and maintain spaces for women. Then there’s Scottish Mosques For All, an organisation with similar aims that also focuses on the important role women can play in community decision-making.
That the members of such groups remain so powerfully committed to their faith in the face of such discrimination is testament to their conviction and a cause for great optimism – as is the growing number of women proudly identifying as visibly Muslim.
Initiatives for women-led mosques and more women in mosque leadership positions have caused predictable controversy within the British Muslim community. There has also been dismay that some women have turned away from the faith. Personally, I can’t see how anyone could be surprised by either scenario, given the lack of access afforded to women across the country.
What I do know is that, instead of outrage and anguish, the community should pour its emotional energies into creating spaces that are open and welcoming to all worshippers.
When Muslim women, like me, speak out on injustice against Muslims in the wider world, religious leaders frequently cheer us on. But when we address inequities within our own communities, the reaction is often far less favourable.
Religious institutions should act as the cornerstones of just and equitable societies. Excluding half of the population and denying their most fundamental spiritual needs is a dereliction of duty. Every day, Muslim women around the world work tirelessly to make the world and their communities better. To do this effectively, we need to be supported by and included in our mosques.