By Shelina Zahra Janmohamed
May 8, 2015
It seems natural to believe that community is for everyone and no one should ever be excluded from a place of worship.
Sadly, the experience of female exclusion from mosques is one that still occurs in many places around the world. Or women are only permitted begrudgingly, faced with poor conditions with little possibility of their opinions or needs being catered for.
In the UK, the Bradford Muslim Women’s Council has announced a consultation to build a women’s mosque. It follows the opening earlier this year of a women’s mosque in the US. There were plans for something similar in India.
If the idea of a women-only mosque upsets you – undoubtedly it’s a controversial idea – then ask yourself why, and then fix the source of your contention.
Worship and spiritual nourishment should be a community endeavour, everyone in the same location, and therefore you can argue – and I’d agree – that men and women should be congregating and worshipping in the same centre.
But this aspiration falls woefully short of many women’s experience of attending the mosque.
As one woman who became a Muslim joked: “I went to a mosque to take my shahadah and become a Muslim, but wasn’t allowed to go into the mosque ever again.”
If a women-only mosque upsets you, then so should a men-only mosque. These latter may claim legitimacy as mosques, but de facto female exclusion means they are men’s clubs in all but name.
Some argue it’s better for women to remain at home, but this denies the reality of many women’s lives especially in minority Muslim populations where community support is essential for spiritual survival and nourishment.
Meeting other Muslims, receiving spiritual education and strengthening bonds with faith and community are vital. Women need it as much as men.
Women are the fastest growing segment of the Muslim population – and the most under attack – but they are being rejected by the institution they need most. Where should they go?
I welcome this initiative. Women need space, support and services. It’s a wake-up call to the community: women deserve better.
This is also a chance to rejuvenate the idea of a mosque as social and spiritual centre from the ground up, built to accommodate the needs of women and families, by women, without getting derailed by power struggles with men wishing to maintain a deplorable status quo.
The danger, of course, is that those mosques that already deliberately exclude women will entrench their positions by closing ranks and redirecting women to the women-only centre.
This can never be a long-term strategic solution, but a tactic in redressing the balance and redirecting the course of women’s social and spiritual engagement in the journey to better serve our communities, both male and female. We are always better together, but sometimes it takes radical steps to get there.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf